Wednesday, April 22, 2015 

Ready for drowning.

Nick Clegg is deeply upset at how human beings, not migrants, people are drowning trying to make the desperate journey across the Mediterranean to gain asylum in Europe.  Nick you might remember was, still is the deputy prime minister in the government that along with much of the rest of EU declared the Mare Nostrum mission undertaken by the Italian navy a "pull factor" in migrants attempting the journey.  Not a single politician honestly believed it to be the case, because not a single one of them is that stupid.  99.99% of those boarding the rickety boats are completely ignorant as to what awaits them if they complete the journey, let alone if their vessel begins to sink.  The mission was downgraded first because no one was prepared to help the Italians with the costs, second because of the turn in attitudes towards migrants across Europe and the rise of various populist/far-right parties and movements, and third because they didn't think anyone honestly cared thousands drown every year fleeing war and oppression.

That decision was not then taken with the best of intentions.  It was taken for entirely cynical reasons and then justified on the basis of a lie they knew would ring true to those convinced migrants come to Europe for the benefits rather than to escape the unbearable.  They obviously didn't know that once winter was over and conditions had eased that more than ever would try and make the journey, but they did know Libya was more of a basket case than in previous years and so correspondingly open to the traffickers.  They knew more people would drown than before.  It was a choice they made and one they should answer for.

Clegg and the Lib Dems at the time said nothing.  Now Clegg knows what the answer is, and what isn't.  The problem's not that migrants are making the journey, but the conditions leading to them trying to make it.  Conditions like the collapse of the Libyan state, which came about as a direct result of the Nato intervention Clegg and the Lib Dems fully supported.  For argument's sake let's accept that was a decision taken with the very best of intentions, to prevent a massacre in Benghazi.  What followed on from that, the choice not just to protect civilians but act as the rebels' ostensible air force, ending only with the death of Gaddafi, was taken despite knowing Gaddafi effectively was the state.  Perhaps little could have been done to prevent Libya becoming the all but failed state it now has, but little is precisely what was done once David Cameron had his moment in Benghazi.

We should then be supporting the security forces in Libya, despite said security forces as far as they exist being far more interested in propping up the two separate governments Libya now has, neither of which really controls much in the way of territory anyway.  We need coordinated action against the people traffickers, despite the people traffickers only really providing a service, if it can be called that, that wouldn't exist if countries like Libya that previously offered better paid work to Eriterans hadn't collapsed in part thanks to actions supported by Clegg.  Clegg recognises the Libyan situation is a problem, and yet still insists it was a fabulous idea to intervene.

Nick is of course right that a "sustainable future" has to be built for those who live on the borders of Europe.  It strikes as just a little bit lacking in joined-up thinking then that we were so quick to dispense with the Gaddafi that up until the Arab spring it had been decided we could do business with.  Whether that was the right decision in the first place is open to question, but it was the one that was made.  Also entirely absent from the piece is so much as a mention of Syria, the country so many of those trying to make the trip are from, and which no one bothers to pretend has a "sustainable future" on the horizon.  There's little point in yet again reheating the same old arguments about our policy in Syria; suffice it to say the Liberal Democrats haven't made a squeak about it having been wrong or having contributed to the clusterfuck still unfolding across the region.

It's difficult to demur from Clegg's conclusion that a multifaceted approach is needed and that "intelligent use of our international development budget" is essential.  Quite where Clegg gets off on attacking UKIP for pointing out the obvious though, that decisions made by the coalition contributed to where we are now is a mystery.  When he claims in complete seriousness that the original decision to end the Mare Nostrum mission and replace it with Frontex was made with good intentions, at the exact same time as Theresa May and Philip Hammond, Clegg's fellow ministers and likely allies in a second coalition continue to insist there is a "pull factor" while hundreds drown, then it's not UKIP and the Tory right-wing that are "washing their hands", it's the Lib Dems that have gone along with such decisions and seem destined to do so in the future.  We have failed these people again and again, Clegg writes.  Indeed he has.  He should be judged on those failures.

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Monday, April 20, 2015 

Foreign policy: not on the campaign agenda.

You hardly need me to tell you the election campaign has not exactly caught fire thus far.  It has briefly threatened to, with Labour's unexpected pledge to abolish non-dom status and the Tory response of Ed Miliband being so ruthless he'd stab his mother in the back to get her independent seafood deterrent or something along those lines, but otherwise it's been three weeks of increasingly hysterical warnings about what the other side will do.

Indeed, it's all wearingly familiar to 5 years ago, with personal attacks on an unpopular leader and scaremongering about the economy the defining characteristics.  The major difference is the Tory emphasis on the "chaos" that would result from any sort of SNP involvement in government, despite the indications up to now this is having precisely zero impact on the polls, unless part of the aim is to do the equivalent of jumping up and down on Scottish Labour's corpse.  The polls as a whole suggest an effective dead heat between Labour and the Conservatives, with slight leads for both from different companies cancelling out each other.  As we head ever closer towards Thursday the 7th, the chance of the fabled "crossover" for the Tories surely becomes less and less likely, with all that implies for how the final week will pan out in terms of last minute attacks and stunts, not least from the never knowingly underbiased media we all know and loathe.

Nearly entirely absent has been any discussion of foreign policy.  Whereas in 2010 debate didn't go much beyond how Labour had clearly breached the military covenant by failing to give the Ministry of Defence exactly what it wanted in Afghanistan, with Gordon Brown criticised for bothering to write a personal letter of condolence, this time it's been limited even further to the 0.7% overseas aid target and the potential in or out EU referendum.

Considering just how disastrous the coalition's foreign policy has been with the exception of the aid target, it's more than slightly incongruous.  It's only when you realise that with the single exception of Miliband stopping the attack on Assad by mistake, which might be a slightly unkind verdict on what happened back in 2013, there has not been a single substantial difference between the main three parties on bombing the fuck out of Islamic State, bombing the fuck out of Libya and supporting the good rebels in Syria while opposing the bad ones that the reason becomes clearer.  When it's left to Private Eye to sum up the ever more bizarre contortions of whom we're supporting and where in the Middle East (see above, obv.), from the satire pages no less, something has gone spectacularly wrong.

The situation in the Mediterranean is not wholly the result of European foreign policy but on it most certainly rests a very heavy burden of responsibility.  Both David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy saw the crackdown by Gaddafi in Libya not just as demanding the invocation of the responsibility to protect in order to save the citizens of Benghazi, but as an unbridled opportunity for European companies to take full advantage of the possibilities created by the dictator's removal.  The UN resolution meant to protect civilians was used to justify changing the regime.  It wasn't inevitable that the end result would be another civil war, but the complete lack of interest from Europe once Gaddafi was dead and his government gone was palpable.  Only now when the country has become the key transit point for migrants looking to escape from the wars and oppressive governments across the region has anyone began to take notice.

Our foreign policy is not so much coherent as asinine.  In Libya we overthrew a secular dictator, just as we did in Iraq; the result has been the same, if so far less bloody.  In Egypt we initially welcomed the overthrow of a secular dictator, only to get cold feet over the Islamism of Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, democratically elected or not, and so we now support the restoration of the secular dictatorship in the shape of President Sisi.  In Syria we support the downfall of the Assad regime, but obviously we don't want the Islamic State to take power instead.  What we do want isn't on offer, as the non-Islamic State supporting rebels nonetheless aren't interested in democracy and instead would like an Islamic state.  We're supposedly training "moderate" rebel forces, but whether they actually exist is still up for debate.  In truth what we seem to have settled for is a bloody stalemate, with neither Assad or the rebels able to win an outright victory, and as a result what's been described as the biggest refuge crisis since WW2 carries on regardless.

In Iraq we naturally support the central government in its fight against Islamic State, but the central government has almost no control whatsoever over the army the Americans supposedly trained at vast expense.  Instead most of the fighting is being done by the same Iranian-backed Shia militias that previously were behind much of the insurgency in the south of Iraq.  The perceived sectarianism of the central government was what drove many Sunnis into once again supporting the Islamic State; now the militias, accused of looting and summary executions are completing the job.   

In Yemen things are even crazier: Houthi rebels, linked with but not under the control of Iran have succeeded in exiling the useless president installed after the protests in the country following the Arab spring.  In a further example of the proxy war being fought between the Saudis and Iran, the Saudi response has been to bomb the fuck out of one of the poorest countries in the world, and we, naturally, are fully behind it, in part because of their negligible help against Islamic State in Syria.  So far the bombing it better approach has amazingly failed to work, with the Houthis continuing their advance.  That no one is the slightest bit interested in yet another bloodbath in the Middle East when there are so many others to pay attention to isn't surprising; when it leads to a further exodus to European shores, as it will, it might just increase in importance.

For while there are some among those making the crossing from Libya to Italy, Greece or Malta, with thousands drowning in the process that are simply looking for a better life or fleeing oppressive governments we have little traction or trade with, like Eritrea, many are there because of conflicts we have either been responsible for or made far worse.  Only Germany and Sweden have made an effort to take in Syrian refugees, with the rest of Europe declaring itself to be full or saying one thing and doing another, as we have.  The decision was effectively made to let migrants drown this spring on the basis that to rescue those put to sea in dangerously overcrowded or inadequate vessels was a "pull" factor.  The numbers have increased regardless of any such thing.  The belated response now has obviously not been to admit that the foreign policy of most EU member states has directly led to the thousands attempting such a perilous voyage, but to target the smugglers themselves, as though they're comparable to the Somalian pirates.

This narrowness between the main parties is an invitation to the bigots and the opportunists to say what they like or claim they somehow offer an alternative.  The Libyan war was a choice; allying with the "moderate" rebels in Syria was a choice; allying with the Saudis in Yemen was a choice; the Iraq war, more than 12 years after it began, remains a choice of almost unparalleled stupidity.  The drowning of thousands of those desperate to escape from the nightmare of their lives is being described as a failure of compassion.  While true, it's more damningly a failure of policy.  That despite 5 years of utter lunacy on the foreign policy front none of the parties want to suggest a better way forward, and in fact two of them want to stir the pot even further goes to show just how limited our politics has become and is likely to remain.

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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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Monday, March 17, 2014 

Interventionists: the biters bit?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tuesday, March 05, 2013 

Keeping secrets secret.

There's a scene in the film Liar Liar (this will almost certainly be the only time I quote from a Jim Carrey film other than the Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind approvingly) in which Carrey's character, compelled to tell the truth after a wish made by his son, screams down the phone at a long-term client once again seeking his legal advice that he should "STOP BREAKING THE LAW, ASSHOLE".

 A similar scene ought to have been repeated a long time ago when it came to the intelligence agencies and their active collusion both with the US rendition programme, and indeed as we now know, MI6's own escapades in delivering opponents of Gaddafi back into his torture system, I mean prison system.  Of course, this could never have happened as, we also now know, it was Jack Straw who was signing the paperwork that authorised the rendition in the first place.

The misfortune of the coalition is that they've been the ones left to deal with the mess created by years of litigation from former detainees who believe, rather justifiably considering what's come to light as well as from their own experiences that both MI5 and SIS were up to their neck in rendition.  The government, desperate to ensure that hundreds of thousands of pages of documents detailing what was going on at the time the former Guantanamo detainees were either being transferred or in the odd case, actively handed over to the Americans remain secret, has in the aftermath of the "seven paragraphs" and a ruling by the Court of Appeal that allegations of wrongdoing must be heard in public, instead resorted to large cash settlements, accepting no culpability for what happened to the men.  The latest, a massive payout to Sami al-Saadi, one of the two men sent back to Gaddafi's holiday camps, was for £2.2 million.

An obvious solution to this unpleasantness would be, you would have thought, to not get involved in illegal conspiracies where "terrorist suspects" are flown to various black sites around the world, or as the rendition programme has since ceased, to not actively conspire with authoritarian states over the detention of opposition figures, regardless of the business interests involved.  This doesn't mean not working with states that we regard as having poor records on human rights whatsoever, when such relationships are vital to protecting our own citizens and interests, rather it means just not helping them with the things that our own courts would reject.

But no.  No, what we need instead to placate both foreign intelligence agencies and to protect our sources on the ground is closed material procedures in civil cases, similar to the current Special Immigration Appeals Commission process, where claimants (or defendants, in SIAC's case) are represented by special advocates who can only give a "gist" of the evidence against their clients to them.  Passed yesterday in parliament, the system will allow justice to be done, the claimants either vindicated or the intelligence agencies cleared of wrongdoing, the taxpayer no longer giving money to suspected terrorists to fund future missions, as Ken Clarke implied at one point, and our allies who have threatened to stop sharing intelligence due to a supposed breach of the "control" principle will be satisfied.

As Henry Porter (as an aside, it's worth noting the lack of outrage from the vast majority of those who condemned ZaNuLiarBore for their constant attacks on civil liberties this time round) and Richard Norton-Taylor have pointed out, these arguments might carry more weight if we didn't know all too well this part of the Justice and Security Bill only exists because of lobbying from the intelligence agencies.  The fact is that the courts were getting far too close to the truth: that despite all of the claims to the contrary, the security services are still involved in practices that are either incompatible with basic human rights or which rather than making us more safe, do the exact opposite.  While the Guantanamo detainees all decided to settle, as has al-Saadi since, it's more than possible that someone would emerge who had suffered either at their hands or indirectly who wouldn't, and would take the case all the way.  The seven paragraphs were enough to get ministers hyperventilating; some of the material contained in the documentation of the war on terror could be enough to alter the perception of the security services for a generation.

The row over the control principle was always secondary to this.  The Americans may well have been angered by the release of the seven paragraphs, but they were only ever released by our courts because the American courts had already let even more damning evidence on the treatment of Binyam Mohamed out into the public domain.  In any case, as David Davis pointed out during the debate, the Americans are more than willing to let intelligence out when it shows them in a good light, and to say their own levels of security were previously wanting considering Bradley Manning and Wikileaks is an understatement.  While it's certainly true that SIAC does not always find in the government's favour, as demonstrated in how Abu Qatada has been granted bail and in Ekaterina Zatuliveter's successful appeal against deportation as a spy, unless there are absolutely exceptional reasons justice must be open, and seen to be open.  Closed material procedures were designed to protect the blushes of the security services, and the amendments to the legislation haven't done anything to change this.

No surprise then that Jack Straw himself stood up in the Commons yesterday and argued against his own party.  Not for him a quiet life while the allegations against him continue to be investigated, and as the civil case from Mr Belhaj remains unresolved (Straw didn't take the opportunity to respond to Belhaj's offer of a settlement for a token sum and an apology), this was a case which required his expertise.  Never mind that it's that exact expertise which has seemingly led to the need for this bill, for as Straw reminded us, it's not scaremongering to say that to carry on in the position we are in is the equivalent of abandoning the intelligence agencies, and with it their ability to protect us.  Just as Straw once said it was a conspiracy theory there was any such thing as a rendition programme, so it would be deeply unwise to regard him as discredited now.

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Thursday, December 13, 2012 

The least they could do.

Right on cue, the news that the government has settled the case brought by Sami al-Saadi over the rendition of his entire family from Hong Kong to Libya only serves to underline how little has changed since the days of collusion with terrorist gangs in Northern Ireland.  Desperate to bring Libya in from the cold so that UK businesses could fully exploit the country's potential, both Tony Blair and Jack Straw went the extra mile in wooing one of the most vicious tyrants of our age, authorising Mark Allen to deal directly with Moussa Koussa in the rendition of both al-Saadi and Abdul Hakim Belhaj.  Al-Saadi was bundled onto a plane in Hong Kong just three days after Blair's trip to Libya to shake hands with Gaddafi, while Belhaj had made a similarly forced trip two weeks prior to Blair's arrival.  Allen went so far as to write that the rendition of Belhaj was "the least we could do for you and Libya".

As with the settlements reached with the men who ended up in Guantanamo, the government has accepted no liability for what happened to al-Saadi, also known as Abu Munthir.  Both Munthir and Belhaj were senior leaders in the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, a faction which had close ties to al-Qaida, prior to its dissolution.  This association didn't bother us too much when Libya was a sworn enemy, however: according to David Shayler (prior, it must be said, to his espousal of 9/11 conspiracy theories) MI6 funded a failed assassination attempt on Gaddafi by the LIFG.  This accepting of no liability is despite it being the most clear-cut case of collusion with an authoritarian state, thanks to the documents discovered by Human Rights Watch, and our knowing full well that any promises sought that the men would not be mistreated were worthless.

It certainly brings into perspective the anger expressed by Blair at how he couldn't deport anyone designated as a "terrorist suspect" to wherever the hell he felt like; no doubt aware of how swiftly those opposed to a new dictatorial ally had been delivered into their grasp, it must have smarted that the likes of Abu Qatada and others kept winning their legal battles.  It also remains to be seen whether charges will be brought against anyone involved in these two cases: the Gibson inquiry into rendition was abandoned as a consequence, ostensibly for the reason that the investigation by the Met would have further delayed the hearing of evidence.  I'm certainly not holding my breath on that score. 

Considering then that Blair has been making such a killing through his work for Kazakhstan, and Straw will presumably be receiving royalties from his memoir, perhaps the pair would like to contribute towards the £2.2m cost to the taxpayer of their handiwork.  It's the least they could do for us, and the country's worldwide reputation for human rights, surely?

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Friday, November 02, 2012 

Everything You Think You Know About Libya and Gaddafi is Wrong (or almost).

As ever, a fascinating post from Adam Curtis over on his blog.  Not quite a Everything You Think You Know is Wrong one, but not that far off.  The subject's Libya and Gaddafi, and how almost everything we were told at one time or another turns out not to be true or distinctly hazy.  Some you'll probably be aware of: the evidence of Libyan responsibility for Lockerbie is shaky in the extreme, Arthur Scargill and the NUM were smeared vis-a-vis their supposed acceptance of Libyan money, and how quickly we shifted from (allegedly) funding a Libyan Islamic Fighting Group assassination attempt on Gaddafi's life to "rendering" one of their leaders back to the country to be tortured.

What I didn't know was that Libya's supposed WMD programme Gaddafi willing gave up was almost as non-existent as Iraq's, or the full facts of the sequence of events that led to Libya being targeted by Reagan in 1986.  Something Curtis doesn't dwell on is that in spite of documents emerging implicating our good selves in the rendition of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, nothing has been produced since the fall of Gaddafi to prove beyond all doubt that Libya was responsible for the downing of Flight 103, or indeed to cast more light on the murder of Yvonne Fletcher.  Notably, Gaddafi's director of military intelligence was sent back to Libya rather than any of the other states or courts where he's wanted, while Moussa Koussa was allowed to skip off to Qatar, never to be seen again.

And there's a clip of Vanessa Redgrave calling for a revolution.  What more do you want?

(P.S. To follow along these somewhat conspiratorial lines, Anna Raccoon doubts the veracity of Jimmy Savile's alleged activities at Duncroft (while not denying in the slightest that he almost certainly did abuse teenage girls elsewhere), having been a pupil there herself in the 60s.  Could it be, after everything, that Peter Rippon was right to can Newsnight's report but for the wrong reasons?)

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Thursday, September 27, 2012 

Cameron's bizarro world.

There's only one thing to do when you've already made a fool of yourself at the UN: go one better and do much the same on the Letterman show.  Supposedly appearing to promote British business when it's clear to everyone that Cameron was just doing what Boris already had because that's how ultra competitive Old Etonian rivals roll, he didn't know who composed the dirge squeezed out for the last night of the Proms, or that Magna Carta in English means Great Charter!  What a pleb!  Did she die in vain after all?

Of rather more importance ought to be the similar crapola Dave served up before the general assembly.  This time last year the splendid NATO intervention in Libya was still going on, with the civilians in Beni Walid and Sirtre being "protected" through bombing raids and Gaddafi yet to be pulled out of his sewer and sodomised to death, so naturally we heard of how wonderful bombing countries with copious natural resources was.  12 months on and the best that can be said about Libya is that the militia allegedly responsible for the murder of the American ambassador Chris Stevens was flushed out of Benghazi with just 9 deaths in the process reported.  According to Cameron, this popular uprising was "inspiring", although strangely he failed to make mention of the deaths or how it reflects rather badly on the Libyan security services that it was armed individuals rather than themselves who carried the burden of doing so.

Mostly though Cameron dedicated his speech to setting up straw men arguments about the Arab spring and then knocking them down.  Anyone would have thought that as a country we had supported the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt from the very beginning, instead of all but ignoring the overthrow of Ben Ali and then only dumping Mubarak when his fall from power seemed inevitable, such was Cameron's fervour for what a wonderful thing the downfall of these authoritarian regimes had been.  We don't though support the complete democratisation of the Middle East, as that would obviously be against our interests.  Search for a mention of Bahrain in Cameron's speech and you'll find there isn't one, despite Cameron trying to claim that Somalia's election of a new president is somehow related to the protests that began last year.  That his election was by, err, other MPs rather than by the people themselves also went curiously unexplained.

Every country, you see, takes its own path.  Occasionally we intervene to help them along that path, but others can be left to make progress based around tradition and consent.  In Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE for instance, stability has been brought through either oil wealth, allowing the United States to use the country as a glorified naval base, or making certain areas a Westerner's playground, so long as they don't do anything silly like enjoy themselves too much in public.  That in all of these nations minorities or citizens as a whole are horribly repressed doesn't matter, as they're our friends and allies.

By far the most egregious part of Dave's sermon was this section:

The fact is that for decades, too many were prepared to tolerate dictators like Gaddafi and Assad on the basis that they would both keep their people safe at home and promote stability in the region and the wider world. In fact, neither was true. Not only were these dictators repressing their people, ruling by control not by consent, plundering the national wealth and denying people their basic rights and freedoms, they were funding terrorism overseas as well.

Now, can you possibly think of a country that fits this description exactly?  No, not Iran, as only relatively recently has that country lost all vestiges of being democratic.  It's the House of Saud's rule down to a T.  Except, Cameron can't possibly mean the Saudis, as we seem more aligned with them than ever.  Just as in the 80s when the Americans joined forces with the Saudis to fund the mujahideen in Afghanistan, so now we're promoting Sunni dominance of the region as a bulwark against Iran.  That this means equipping jihadis in Syria to battle against Assad, hijacking what had been a non-sectarian uprising, is just one of the compromises we have to make if we're going to ensure that stability remains.  It also means we'll have to turn a blind eye to the shooting dead of protesters in restive regions of SA, just as we said next to nothing about the crushing of the protests in Bahrain.

Quite how Cameron had the nerve to stand up and say the UN was stained by the blood of children killed in Syria is though something else.  No one can deny that the Assad regime bears full responsibility for the situation in the country as it stands, but to completely ignore the atrocities also being committed by the opposition forces we're supporting is an outrage.  Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, embedded with the FSA, reported this week on how a 16-year-old who said the wrong thing to the rebels was brutally tortured in front of him; if they're prepared to do that to someone who merely spoke out of turn, and in front of a Guardian journalist, then how they are treating those they're supposedly fighting for when there are no witnesses around?  The blocking of resolutions on Syria by China and Russia is partially down to how they were misled on Libya, when the imposition of a no fly zone was used by NATO as the authorisation for regime change.  The blame ought to be shared out equally, not just pinned on those who've dared to point out our hypocrisies.

Only then in this bizarro world of Cameron's imagining could it be Iran that's set "on dragging the region in to wider conflict".  The Saudi and Qatari funding of the FSA seems designed to weaken Iran, which in turn is undermining the stability of Lebanon.  Add in how Israeli politicians have been agitating for an attack on the country now for the last couple of years, with Benjamin Netanyahu today reaching new heights of fantasy, describing a nuclear armed Iran as comparable to a nuclear armed al-Qaida, and it's clear the exact opposite is the case. Iran is trying to consolidate its position in the region while our allies and ourselves are doing everything we can to push it back.

At least on Letterman Cameron only embarrassed himself.  Let loose on the world stage, delivering speeches in which he claims to be a liberal Conservative rather than a neo-con, he comes across as positively dangerous.  An independent British foreign policy seems as far away as ever.

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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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Tuesday, March 06, 2012 

Wading knee-deep through the jihadist media sewer.

I don't pay anywhere near as much attention as I once did to jihadist media. This is for a number of reasons: English sources for it have almost completely dried up, with the main site I used to find it on long gone; the insurgency in Iraq, similarly, essentially no longer exists, and so the insight the propaganda of the groups there provided into how the occupation was going and into jihadist strategy and thinking in general has likewise disappeared; the law has been tightened to such a ridiculous extent that the simple possession of one issue of Inspire magazine, the unintentionally hilarious in-house journal of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula can result in a 16-month prison sentence; and also, there are only so many videos of fireworks going off under vehicles supposedly occupied either by the Americans, the CIA or the collaborators while the person filming shouts "ALLAH AKBAR!" over and over you can watch.

From the very meagre access I now have to the videos emanating from these various groups, not all of whom are necessarily Salafist, I've noticed something rather curious. While the Arab spring has thoroughly discombobulated al-Qaida central, with both bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri imagining that it would be their victories against the Americans that would inspire the Arabs to rise up against their Western-backed rulers, rather than liberal and leftist campaigners who would quickly be joined by those across class, religious and political boundaries, other Salafists have turned to the ballot box where previously they eschewed it, most notably in Egypt.

In Libya and Syria it's a different story entirely. Despite the claims of many that some of the Libyan militias were either veterans of Iraq or had at the very least jihadi sympathies, something backed up by the prominent role of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, formerly of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, it now looks as though some jihadis are fighting back against the NTC under the Gaddafi green banner, however bizarre that might sound. Difficult as it is to verify exactly what their reasoning is, or whether this might be to assign Salafi influence to tribal infighting, that such videos are being posted on the same forums mainly used by jihadis is instructive in itself.

In Syria, more predictable is that the Free Syrian Army, a misnomer if there ever was one as it has nothing approaching a central command, has "brigades" that are quite openly veterans of Iraq. As Angry Arab has noted, they even have a tendency to name themselves after either Qatari or Saudi politicians, or alternatively historical Islamic figures, including ones that are regarded with open disdain by Shia Muslims. Already there are groups releasing long videos with decent production values, including this one that claims to show a suicide bombing in Damascus. The Assad regime has of course been squealing since the uprising began that they're fighting back against terrorists, and so accordingly it's right to be suspicious of such videos, it hardly being beyond the remit of the Syrian security services to produce such material; it does though give some credence to the view of the US military that at least some of the bombings have been carried out by jihadists.

What's so odd is that there doesn't seem to be any reason as to why jihadists would want to ally themselves, however briefly, with those yearning for the bad old days under Gaddafi rather than give the NTC a try. In Syria, the reasoning is obvious: Sunni Muslims being persecuted by a relatively small sect for demanding their rights, even if the situation has since changed fundamentally. The potential involvement of al-Qaida in Syria is worrying precisely because of the record of al-Qaida in Iraq, which quickly turned to sectarian bloodshed as a tactic, the ultimate aim being to drive the Americans out. In Syria this might hasten the fall of Assad, but at a massive cost for all involved. There is still then something to be learned from keeping an eye on jihadi propaganda, however bleak the world it promotes would be.

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Thursday, February 23, 2012 

Somalia: a dangerous moment.

It's Thursday, it's London, so it must be the Somalian conference. Having previously not been the slightest bit interested in this most benighted of hell holes, instead leaving it to the Americans to occasionally blunder in, it was curious to learn yesterday that we too are now looking at the possibility of sending guided missiles into yet another poor Muslim state. The leader of the transitional government, a government that has now been in transition since 2000, thinks that "targeted" strikes on al-Shabaab would be a splendid idea. And why not? Where previously Ethiopia intervened to overthrow the Islamic Courts Union, whom had successfully liberated the capital Mogadishu from the warlords, we now have the Kenyans involved, having originally crossed the border in pursuit of insurgents alleged to have carried out the kidnap of foreign tourists. Adding ourselves into the mix, even if it was just a few simple in and out operations, couldn't possibly make things worse. Could it?

After the disaster of Iraq and the continuing nightmare in Afghanistan, many, myself included, thought that finally it had been driven into our thick skulls that military intervention in the Arab world/Middle East did not end well. Even if this realisation hadn't taken root, then the recession meant there was no money left in reserve for extended action. Then the Arab spring happened, to the surprise of every Western government, just as they were staggered by the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the space of three weeks the opposition in Libya went from saying that they didn't need outside help to demanding international action, and getting it. A year on, Gaddafi dead, and Libya overall is only in slightly better shape than Syria, where Assad clings onto power by massacring those who have risen against him, just as Gaddafi had threatened to do to Benghazi.

The thing is, Libya proves we have learned something from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans went into both countries with ourselves on their coattails saying that they wouldn't be engaging in something as sappy as nation building, only to change their minds once the initial fighting was over. With Libya, our politicians presented the NTC as ready to take charge the moment Gaddafi was hunted down, even when it seemed probable that it was just a temporary construct that would fall apart once its reason for coming together was over. With all the separate militias refusing during the war itself to work together, they were hardly likely to overcome their differences afterwards. Instead of involving ourselves in these fripperies, we just got the hell out as soon as we could declare mission accomplished. In Iraq and Afghanistan our use of conventional ground forces meant that when we broke it, we owned it; in Libya we just did the damage from the air, with the Libyans themselves owning the result.

Like Kosovo convinced Tony Blair that it was better to intervene than leave well alone, so it now seems that Libya has emboldened the next generation of leaders. It's true that this is less clear cut than it was back then: our failure to push harder for action against Syria proves that. It has though shoved the experience of Iraq further back into the collective memory, even while the "forgotten" war in Afghanistan continues. There simply isn't any other convincing explanation for why else we'd ever imagine that getting involved in Somalia would be anything like a good idea; for all the talk about the pirates based there and the potential threat posed by al-Shabaab, neither are truly crucial problems. The introduction of armed guards on shipping seems to have had a dramatic effect on the number of boats being seized, while the affiliation of al-Shabaab to al-Qaida seems more an act of desperation than one of strength. There is always a chance that some of those apparently travelling to Somalia to fight on the side of al-Shabaab may return and then decide to launch attacks here as is feared, but it seems far more probable that the camps in Pakistan will remain more attractive for those determined to bring the war home.

Tempting as it is to conclude that Somalia will remain a failed state, you can't help but hope that today's conference is a step towards stability. It is just that though, a step. One suspects that Amison and the transitional forces will continue to gain ground, but that as in Iraq and Afghanistan al-Shabaab will turn to typical guerilla tactics, and I fear, potentially even to the mass suicide attacks that the Islamic State of Iraq became infamous for. Despite Hillary Clinton today saying that air strikes wouldn't be a good idea, something more than slightly rich when the US has been carrying out drone attacks in the country as recently as last month, you also feel that we've reached one of those moments when the government is emboldened enough to imagine that they can't possibly make things any worse. And despite my sarky opening paragraph, such moments are always incredibly dangerous.

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Thursday, February 09, 2012 

Syria: get used to our impotence.

There is only one way to describe you can describe the attack on the city of Homs by the Syrian army: it is nothing less than an attempt to crush the uprising against Bashar al-Assad through wholesale murder. Especially hard to take is that if Benghazi had been subject to a similar siege, rather than just a threatened one, it would have been incredibly difficult to oppose intervention in Libya on the same grounds as I did at the time.

Syria though, as we must always point out, is not Libya, just as Libya was not Iraq or Afghanistan. As predictable as the veto by Russia and China was at the UN security council last weekend, and as pathetic as the synthetic outrage from ourselves and the Americans has been since, it's indisputable that the veto has emboldened Assad in ordering the assault on Homs. This wasn't though the only factor: equally ill-judged was the withdrawal of the Arab League monitors whose simple presence meant that the regime couldn't take the gloves off in the way it now has.

That move was instigated by of all countries, Saudi Arabia, which gives an insight into the regional politics at play. Having urged the United States to attack Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities, it's little surprise that the Saudis alongside the Qataris and Emirate states are now trying to damage the Shia theocracy through removing from power their ally in Syria. While there is some natural concern at how the majority Sunnis are being persecuted by the minority Alawites, much of the approach of the Saudis is down to how if Assad were to fall it would help to isolate Iran. By equal measure, as Simon Tisdall points out, this is why Iran is determined to ensure Assad is not overthrown, and is doing so by probably collaborating outright with the crackdown by the regime. They do after all have experience in putting down a budding revolution by force.

The Russians also have much to lose should Assad now fall from power, as has been pointed out at length by more or less everyone. This doesn't alter the fact that if both Russia and China weren't outright lied to, they were most certainly misled by the NATO powers over Libya. The topic has been done to death, but UNSC 1973 most certainly did not authorise what became effective regime change, even if it was achieved purely through air power, the use of special forces and the NTC on the ground, armed and trained by the Qataris. Destroying artillery and tanks that posed a potential threat to civilians was one thing; bombing regular forces to soften them up before the advance of the rebel fighters was quite another, as were the attacks on retreating regime cadres and the onslaught Sirte was subjected to from the air. Accusing the Russians and Chinese of essentially allowing civil war to descend as the US ambassador Susan Rice did was the height of hypocrisy. NATO had no qualms whatsoever in picking sides when it came to the civil war in Libya, or indeed Afghanistan.

It is true that nothing in the proposed resolution would have allowed for anything remotely similar to the intervention in Libya. It was though nonetheless the first real opportunity for a protest by the Russians and Chinese on a resolution of a similar nature, and there doesn't seem to be anyone suggesting that it's Chinese interests in Syria that motivated their use of the veto, for the reason that they're relatively slight. Opinions similarly differ on how effective the resolution would have been had the Russian and Chinese abstained as they did on UNSC 1973; it would have done little other than endorse the peace plan proposed by the Arab League that Assad and his regime have already rejected with no sign of a reconsideration coming, with a UN sponsored observation of the planned ceasefire tacked on. It may well have influenced more in the army to defect, or persuaded one or two senior regime figures that the game was up as some decided in Libya, and also increased the regime's isolation; equally, it may have encouraged Assad to try and deliver a knock out blow to the resistance in the way he is doing now, before any further steps could be taken.

All this only underlines how few options we have for helping those who have risen against Assad. No one serious is advocating an intervention outside of UN auspices, and those suggesting Turkey might try its hand will be disappointed with how they have also ruled out military action. An insight into how some of those who go out on such limbs seem to have a distant relationship with reality is how Michael Weiss claims Syria has "only" 100,000 ground troops. Even if it's only half that number, taking into account defections and other wastage, that's still at least double the number Libya had. Syria can also rely as alluded to above on some support from Iran, especially when it comes to weaponry, with the country having more modern Russian equipment than the Soviet standard Libya had. There is also no safe buffer zone in Syria, as they at least admit, and it would be difficult to create one. Not impossible, but certainly difficult and with a potential cost in terms of lives considering the Syrian defences.

Similarly fraught with difficulty would be arming the Free Syrian Army, as Marc Lynch goes into great detail on. We know even less about the Syrian opposition than we did about the Libyan NTC, which basically means we know sweet F.A. It's rumoured that the Saudis and Qataris are already doing so, but the way the assault on Homs is going it seems doubtful whether those resisting can carry on doing so publicly for much longer. Longer term insurgency and guerilla warfare may well have to be resorted to.

Unpalatable as it is then, there is relatively little we can do other than up the diplomatic pressure and look to impose further sanctions, with the exception of encouraging the Arab League to continue its efforts to seek a transition. A beefed up observer mission could help to stop the bloodshed were it large enough, but this seems unlikely to be accepted.

Sadly, Syria has all the attributes which make an intervention near to impossible: a regime where most of the elite come from an ethnic minority that fears what would happen to it should the majority gain power; a large military with relatively modern equipment; an opposition without a strong base; a powerful ally well versed in putting down dissent and viscerally opposed to losing its friend; and no major natural resources that those intervening would potentially gain better access to. Unlike with democracies where pressure can come to bear on those launching limited wars, Israel eventually succumbing to it in both Lebanon in 2006 and in Gaza in 2009/10, dictatorships can hold out for far longer. Having also seen what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, Assad knows overwhelming force is now his best weapon. We will almost certainly have to get used to this feeling of impotence, such is our managed decline.

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