Tuesday, September 25, 2012 

Who says we're abandoning our traditions?

In keeping with the glorious tradition of the British military training future dictators, it's just swell to see that not only were senior Syrian military figures given the once over back here in Blighty, no doubt instructed in how to handle demonstrations without resorting immediately to shelling the protesters, but that soldiers from both Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo have also been welcomed with open arms to Sandhurst.  While Sudan isn't quite in the same dire straits as Syria, protests have been on-going there since the beginning of the Arab spring, while the DRC has never recovered from the two Congo wars and the Kivu conflict.  Doubtless some of the training has been put to good practical use rather than to just disrupt protests and crack down on dissent, yet it's hardly surprising there's cynicism about exactly what purpose these links fulfil.

How unlike our continuing connection and cooperation with the government of Bahrain, as how can you possibly be cynical about something so out in the open? And how in any case could anyone be critical of what is and has long been such a lucrative mutual relationship?  We send them John Yates to give their police advice on how to stall investigations respect human rights, and they bung us £3 million quid for a new sports hall at Sandhurst while buying British-made lethal weaponry at our premier arms fair.  Everyone's a winner.  Oh, except for the poor sods who don't much like living under an all but absolute monarchy directly connected to the House of Saud.

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Friday, July 13, 2012 

Quote of the year.

It is wrong to allege that in the runup to the Arab spring UK export controls were lax.

Alistair Burt, the same minister who gave the OK for Bahrani officials to visit the DSEi arms fair last September.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2012 

John Yates says it's fine, so who are we to disagree?

Considering the amount of adverse comment on the holding of the Bahrain grand prix earlier in the year, it's fascinating to learn that our glorious government decided it was fine for officials from the Bahrani government to visit the DSEi arms fair in September of 2011. By contrast, those lily-livered Americans only gave the go ahead for weapon sales to resume in May of this year, and then supposedly they wouldn't be supplying anything that could be used for "crowd control".

We of course couldn't care less about the citizens of countries whose governments are just one step removed from major allies like Saudi Arabia, while we pretend to care deeply about the civilians in Syria, closely allied as the Assad regime is with Iran. It's not exactly surprisisng then that there has been almost no coverage whatsoever of the protests in Qatif in the House of Saud's happy kingdom, this New York Times piece a notable exception. When there's tens of thousands protesting against the most tyrannical ruling class in the whole of the Middle East, it's about time those who have been romanticising the Free Syrian Army changed the record.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012 

Too early to tell.

I was going to start this post off by quoting Zhou Enlai, who when asked about the effects of the French revolution purportedly said that it was too soon to say. Only, as such witticisms often are, it all seems to have been a misunderstanding based on translation. Enlai wasn't referring to the revolution of 1789, but to the student rising of May '68, some three years previous. Still a fair while to not be able to draw a judgement, but not quite as indicative of supposed Chinese reflection on history as has been implied.

So much for that then. Except it is about time we at least took stock of where the Arab spring has led, a year and seven months on. Only Tunisia, where the protests began, can claim to have experienced both genuine revolution, and then also succeeded in following the initial phase up with free democratic elections. Even so, it can't be pretended that everything there is rosy: the Islamist Ennahada party, having won the largest share of the vote in the elections, has been remarkably indulgent of Salafist opinion and direct action, prosecuting a cinema owner who screened Persepolis after protesters claimed the film was blasphemous, while last week it blamed "provocations and insults" after Salafis defaced works of art and then rioted in the capital, leading the government to order a city wide night curfew.

In Egypt, the counter-revolution by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces looks to have been timed to perfection. Having let elections take place that resulted in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party and a Salafi coalition dominating parliament, it waited until Mubarak's conviction was certain before striking back. A ruling has since dissolved parliament, and this week SCAF issued amendments to the interim constitutional declaration drastically limiting the president's power. This came as the MB's presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi claimed he had the won the run-off against the former prime minister Ahmad Shafiq, something denied by the latter who claims he is in fact victorious. Tonight it's being reported that tomorrow's announcement of the official result has been delayed indefinitely, ostensibly due to complaints from both parties, but coming so soon after the other interventions from the military it's hard not worry about whether this is a further attempt at a power grab.

Libya, despite or rather in spite of the NATO intervention is in an even worse state. Elections that were due to be held yesterday were postponed earlier in the month until July the 9th, supposedly on the grounds of "logistical and technical" reasons, although more likely is the fact that vast swathes of the country are still in the control of local militias rather than that of the Transitional National Council. Gone almost unreported is that four International Criminal Court officials continue to be held by the militia in Zintan, on the ludicrous grounds that Australian lawyer Melinda Taylor was passing "coded messages" to Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. Far from condemning the seizure, Australian foreign minister Bob Carr seems ready to "apologise" about the mission in an attempt to free the four, who are stuck as much in the power struggle between Tripoli and the militias as they are due to disagreement with the ICC over where the trials of former regime figures should be held (can you imagine the protests if Syrian forces had taken into custody some of the UN monitors?). The battle at Tripoli airport only underlined how volatile the country remains, while Benghazi and Misrata, the two cities most associated with the revolution look as though they could go their own way, having already held local elections.

Little more really needs to be said about the disaster unfolding in Syria. In Yemen, President Saleh handed over power, but this seems to have only postponed renewed protests should any attempt be made by his successor Abdo Rabbuh Mansur Al-Hadi to serve longer than the two years the power transfer agreement laid out. Bahrain continues to prosecute those it claims took part in protests, the latest being an 11-year-old boy, the uprising of last year having been crushed by troops sent in from Saudi Arabia and Emirate states. With the wonderful John Yates in charge of reforming policing, having moved from deciding one group of crooks needn't be investigated to another, and the United States announcing that it will resume weapon sales to the country regardless of the continuing crackdown, things can clearly only get better for those demanding their rights in the country. Saudi Arabia itself meanwhile is mourning the death of Prince Nayef, with many governments across the world expressing their condolences. None however are likely to mention that today Muree bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was executed having been convicted of "witchcraft and sorcery".

Certain patterns have emerged. As throughout history, those who first agitate for and succeed in overthrowing their rulers often find their revolution stolen from them or otherwise subverted, as in France (see above), Russia in 1917 with the February revolution being overtaken by the Bolshevik uprising in October, and Iran in 1979 when what had began as a rising against the Shah was transformed into an anointment of Ayatollah Khomeini. In Tunisia and Egypt the protesters were overwhelmingly young, secular and relatively liberal, and yet the main beneficiaries were Islamic parties. Partially down to the Muslim Brotherhood and other similar groupings having long dominated the underground opposition movement, it was also partially down to the usual failure of the left, liberals and secular groups in general to unite around a common party or figure. In the Egyptian presidential election the MB's Morsi faced off against five main candidates opposing him and the so-called "remnants", the end result being the inevitable run off between him and a former regime figure.

More broadly, it showcases the continuing disaster of the belief that leaderless organisations and campaigns are the future of political opposition. Facebook and Twitter may well have been instrumental in the initial success of the Arab spring; they've certainly helped Western journalists to report on the views of protesters, as well as spreading unverifiable propaganda. What those using social networking have not been able to do is put together a coherent message after the first, and relatively easiest part of the process of removing a tyrannical government from power has been achieved, let alone organise themselves to the extent of being able to win anything approaching power themselves. The most obvious example of this failure is rather closer to home: heard anything from what was Occupy LSX recently? Nope, thought not.

The end result has been only marginally less repressive forces than those which were initially ousted have taken control. Tunisia is probably slightly better off than it was under Ben Ali, and Ennahada might take decisive action against the Salafis should their demands for Sharia escalate further. Elsewhere, the picture's fairly bleak. Egypt could almost be back where it started, even if Mubarak is close to death; Libya is likely to effectively break up into constituent parts; Syria is between the rock of Assad and the hard place of the Free Syria Army; and Yemen and Bahrain are nowhere nearer true democracy than they were in December 2010. It really is too early to tell how the Arab spring will play out, but it's not exactly looking good.

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Wednesday, June 01, 2011 

The continuing sorry saga in Libya.

Doesn't time fly when you're bombing other people's countries? It was only a couple of weeks ago that the very last British troops left Iraq, ending our involvement there some 8 years after we first joined in with Operation Iraqi Freedom, although we probably should properly date it back to 1991, considering we were involved in policing the no fly zone right up until March 2003. Come October it'll be 10 years since we went into Afghanistan, and having had another winter where the coalition's advances have been talked up, we're now once again into the summer fighting season, the Taliban striking seemingly at will, while we still can't seem to distinguish between civilians and fighters, much to Karzai's continuing distress.

When it comes to Libya, anyone making predictions as to how long we'll be involved there in some way or another is liable to end up looking as much of a buffoon as Harold Camping. What is clear is that in the two months and a bit since we began operating another no-fly zone in an Arab country is that the mission has not so much creeped as performed the equivalent of a hop, a skip and a jump. Difficult as it is to remember, UNSC resolution 1973, as well as authorising "all necessary means" to protect civilians also called for an immediate ceasefire, something which it's fair to say that only the Gaddafi regime is now looking for. This isn't because the tide has turned inexorably in the favour of the revolution, although with the apparent victory for now at least in Misrata it's true that the rebels have gained important ground, it's more because the West, having been so quick to demand that Gaddafi go has left so little room for either reconciliation or even an interim deal which ends the fighting.

The difference in the approach taken with the uprising in Syria could hardly be more stark. On the face of it after all, the two regimes have both had something resembling a rapprochement with the West. Libya, having got rid of its nuclear programme and other WMD was brought in from the cold, with Saif al-Gaddafi being hailed as a potential reformer ready to assume leadership when daddy grew tired of pitching his tent across the globe, while Bashar al-Assad was feted in a similar way. Hopes that he would begin a move away from authoritarianism may have diminished as the years passed, yet our governments learned to tolerate his cordial relations with Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran, the country's influence over Lebanon having fell with the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the killing being blamed (wrongly it seems) on Syria. While though there were calls from the very beginning for some form of intervention in Libya when Gaddafi ordered his forces to turn their guns on the demonstrators across the country, almost no one has urged the same in Syria.

Partially this is for the very sane reason that having taken such action in Libya, it's simply impossible to do much if anything at all to protect the demonstrators that continue to protest across Syria, nor is there any evidence that a no-fly zone would achieve anything substantial, although it's arguable it hasn't done that much in Libya either. It's also true that there have been few such calls from within the country for such an action, and that the government there has not given a blood-curdling warning to any particular town or city as Gaddafi did to Benghazi. The numbers of dead however are broadly similar: around 1,100 are feared to have been murdered across the country, a comparable number with those massacred prior to NATO intervention in Libya, and the targeted violence if anything could well be worse than that meted out by Gaddafi's security forces; the horrific injuries suffered by the 13-year-old Hamza al-Khatib are shocking even by the barbaric standards that have been set already this year. And yet the condemnation for such outrages has been muted to the point of almost silence. No politician in this country has suggested that Assad and his regime, rather than giving concessions such as an amnesty, announced today, should go, nor has any pressure whatsoever been put on it to cease the crackdown. Discussions at the UN, not helped admittedly by Russian intransigence, have got nowhere.

We shouldn't of course be surprised by such inconsistency from this government. After all, a couple of weeks back David Cameron welcomed the Bahrani crown prince to Downing Street, happily posing shaking hands with him for the cameras, while all he could muster in way of condemnation for the brutal crackdown on the protests in the country, the entire camp having been razed, was that "reform rather than repression" was necessary. As for our blind spot on Saudi Arabia, where this week the authorities were magnanimous enough to release a woman from prison after she heinously drove a car in broad daylight, the oil and arms deals ensure our collective myopia.

All of which makes it even more incomprehensible just why we've committed ourselves to an mission without an apparent end in Libya. If the immediate aim was to forestall a massacre on the scale of Srebrenica in Benghazi, then with the danger long passed we ought now to be attempting to obtain a ceasefire as outlined in the UN resolution and go from there. Instead in our determination to force Gaddafi from power we're now sending in ground forces by proxy, while the Apache helicopters wait to be given the go ahead to operate, as though they alone can shift the balance in favour of the rebels. Caution it seems is being sacrificed in favour of doing something, anything: the potential of a Black Hawk Down style disaster is obvious, especially when the Gaddafi forces will certainly still have better weaponry than the simple RPGs which brought down the American helicopters in Somalia; it could even have been supplied by ourselves, as the rebels have been finding as they've progressed. As much as justice must be done, the involvement of the international criminal court has helped no one: any small chance that remained of the colonel being persuaded to leave power voluntarily has been dashed.

If nothing else, the government should now begin to be honest with us. Gaddafi will it's now clear eventually fall; the situation in Tripoli can't be contained forever as fuel becomes ever more scarce, nor will those still prepared to fight continue to do so when the money begins to run out, as it will. The problem is when this will happen, and for now it looks like taking months rather than weeks, potentially far longer than the three months which the NATO mission has already been extended by. This needs to be made clear in parliament, as do the plans for what happens when he falls. The cost of the mission also needs to be explained, something which they've been at pains to ignore from the very beginning. It's difficult though to shake the feeling that there still might well be a sting in the tail to come in this sorry saga.

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Monday, March 14, 2011 

Some revolutions are more equal than others.

You really do have to hand it to the Saudis, in a way: they could have chosen any point over almost
the last month to humbly request the permission of the Bahrani royal family to come in and safeguard the island kingdom's key facilities from the grubby hands of the Shia majority, who've spent that same time period continually protesting for reform. Instead they've bided their time, and have duly found the most opportune moment in which to invade occupy provide assistance to their friends in their hour of need. With the world's attention quite rightly on the human catastrophe in Japan, and with the West bickering over just how we should further sabotage the Libyan uprising, no one's going to pay much heed to allies helping out allies, are they?

Well, the United States and our good selves sure aren't. Just as we've demanded that the tyrant Gadaffi leave immediately, we've said precisely nothing whatsoever about the crackdown by the House of Saud on anyone daring to express even the mildest dissent against their enlightened reign. Last week saw all protests banned ahead of a optimistically planned "Day of Rage", which sadly but predictably seems to have failed to take place. That suits us just fine, it has to be said: if there's one thing we desperately need when the rest of the Arab world is finding its voice, it's for the Saudis and their oil to keep flowing with no interruptions whatsoever. As our leaders demand that the dictators and autocrats we've propped up for the last few decades heed the anger of their people, and they consider whether stability without freedom isn't really stability at all, the last thing we need is any rocking of the boat on the black gold front. Both ourselves and the Americans have substantial interests in Bahrain after all: the US Fifth Fleet, integral to operations in Iraq, is based off the capital, Manama.

Indeed, according to the US, today's deployment of 1,000 Saudi troops in armoured 4x4s with 500 police from the United Arab Emirates is most certainly not an invasion. Even so, the usual calls for "restraint" are being made. Restraint is always an interesting word to use when it comes to protests, as its carries an obvious, ominous double meaning with it: before the US finally decided after days of procrastination to dispense with Mubarak, it had urged the protesters and the police across Egypt to restrain themselves, as though the two were equals and both culpable. Laughable as that was, at least the Egyptian people were confident they had the army on their side: in Bahrain, the protesters are now having to face up to the realisation that the crack troops of another nation entirely are now lined up against them, beholden only to their own completely unaccountable rulers. Nothing could be more provocative, and yet all we can do is murmur restraint at this chilling development.

It certainly has the potential to be incredibly embarrassing to David Cameron. Before he decided that intervening in one specific uprising was imperative, he went on a tour of some of the nations in the Gulf Co-Operation Council, all while chiding those of us suggesting that this was the wrong time to be flogging weapons to vile dictatorships. It was absurd that we would deny such countries the right to defend themselves, and who better to supply these threatened nations with such devices of self-defence than Britain? Among the goodies we sold Saudi Arabia last year were 4-wheel drive vehicles and armoured personnel carriers; by a strange, spooky coincidence, it just so happens that among the convoy crossing the causeway into Bahrain from SA were 4-wheel drive vehicles and what look suspiciously like armoured personnel carriers.

Doubtless we can be reassured that their destructive capability will only be used if the Bahrani protesters fail to restrain themselves. It definitely wouldn't look good if rather than arming the rebels in Libya, we had instead inadvertently supplied the counter-revolutionaries in Bahrain with their tools of repression. Some revolutions however can clearly be sacrificed; all are equal, but some are more equal than others.

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