Tuesday, November 24, 2015 

Our NATO allies, everybody.

There are, as you'd expect, a whole load of ways of interpreting why Turkey decided it was a fabulous idea to shoot down a Russian jet that may or may not have invaded their airspace, and most of them will have some measure of truth to them.

You could for instance start by saying that Putin's tears and rage at the action are both hysterical and hypocritical.  Maybe, just maybe if you could keep your raging war boner somewhat under control Vlad, things like this wouldn't happen.  You are after all the one apparently bombing the Turkmen, and the Turks are notoriously defensive about anyone sitting near their border, whether they be friend or foe.  Going into Turkish airspace, no matter for how brief a period is probably not a wise thing to do, especially when they made clear previously their feelings on such invasions.  Besides, there is also the little matter of MH17: the Russians might not have been personally responsible for downing the Malaysian Airlines flight, but giving Buk anti-aircraft missiles to halfwitted militants who don't or can't know the difference between a commercial flight and a Ukrainian military jet was an accident waiting to happen.  Instead of owning up and apologising, Russia has of course since denied it was their tame separatists and obstructed the investigation in every way possible.  Feel your pain we don't.

Then there's a more sympathetic to the Russians interpretation.  The Americans have said any breach of Turkish airspace was limited to seconds; the radar released by the Turks in an effort to justify their actions suggests precisely that.  If every country shot down every plane that went into their airspace without explicit permission for as much as a matter of seconds, no one would ever fly again.  The Turkish account that they supposedly repeatedly radioed the Russian plane telling it to stay out therefore doesn't tally with the evidence of the radar.  The reaction of NATO, which has essentially been to distance itself as much as it can from whichever trigger happy commander ordered the shooting down, has been to say this is a matter between the Turks and the Russians.  In other words, they're on their own on this one, even if in public they're saying Turkey has the right to defend itself from 16 second incursions.  When you bear in mind that the reaction of ourselves and most other European nations is to scramble jets to escort Russian planes if and when they decide to venture into airspace they've not received permission to and then complain about it later for the reason it's not worth the repercussions of doing otherwise, the Turks deciding to shoot one down for a breach of a matter of seconds is not going to win them many new friends.

Next there's a slightly more conspiratorial interpretation.  It is as Lindsey Hilsum has tweeted somewhat odd there just happened to be a TV crew in place to film the shot down jet hitting the ground.  It might have been sheer luck, but there are certainly good reasons to believe the rebels in the area have a hotline to their friends over the border.  They could well have informed the Turks, who apparently now believe that back in power with a majority they have little to lose, especially when they can rely on NATO to back them up.  Using the excuse of the slight breach of their airspace, making clear to Russia and Putin precisely what they think of their intervention on the side of Assad might have made something approaching sense in theory.  In practice, not so much.

Lastly, to keep this somewhat brief, there's the full on conspiratorial interpretation.  Turkey has a lot to lose if as looked possible there was an accommodation or deal between the various powers, whether it comes at the Vienna talks or more informally between the American-led coalition and Russia.  The Paris attacks have finally concentrated minds, making clear that the Western policy of letting the Sunni Gulf states + Turks fund whichever rebel groups they felt like while hoping it's not enough to actually defeat Assad cannot go on.  We can't of course lose face by admitting as much, but thankfully the Russians had already intervened to ensure Assad wouldn't fall.  Dealing directly with Assad is off the table, but the Russians with a little persuading can do that for us.  The Syrian Arab Army can then be the ground force we lack against IS, only they'll be liasing with the Russians instead.  Bearing in mind the only other ground force we can rely on, the Kurds, are also in direct conflict with the Turks, there are a myriad of reasons as to why the Turks would want this alliance of convenience to fall apart before it can so much as come together. 

That's without getting on to the relationship between Islamic State and Turkey.  Evidence has been mounting for some time on the links, but there really isn't any better than the Turkish reaction to the siege of Kobani.  It was only thanks to the Americans realising letting the border city fall as the Turks advised them to would be a propaganda victory too far and send a terrible message to about the only genuinely moderate forces in Syria that they started co-ordinating with the YPG.  Add on how the Islamic State attacks in Ankara just before the election undoubtedly helped the AKP to their majority, and not that much more needs to be added.

As said, there's something to all these interpretations.  Yes, Putin's reaction has been absurdly over-the-top, but then it's a fair bet ours wouldn't be much different if say the Iranians shot down one of our jets if it strayed into their airspace while carrying out sorties in Iraq.  His remarks on the links between Turkey and Islamic State are fairly sound also, as Erdogan has without doubt been playing the same double game in Syria as the Saudis and Qataris  have.  Indeed, if I wasn't a subscriber to the cock-up rather than conspiracy school of history until there is overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise, then the full on conspiratorial interpretation would make the most sense.  You can't though seriously believe the Turks would do something so unbelievably stupid, not knowing whether or not NATO would back them when they know full well the game they've been playing all along.  They might well be trying their best to sabotage the Vienna talks and will be making clear the risks their allies are playing by working with the Russians, but the best explanation for this is a trigger happy commander going out on a limb in an area where nationalist passions run hot.  Turkey has way too much to lose and far too little to gain.

The other obvious conclusion from today is there are already too many nations operating in Syria or at the margins, all with competing agendas and all with grudges against each other.  There is incredibly little to be gained and much to be lost by as David Cameron heroically put it "getting to grips with the Isil menace".  Still, come Thursday the prime minister's explanation as to what distinct and unique role the British military can provide in Syria as demanded by the foreign affairs select committee should be worth a laugh.

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Monday, November 23, 2015 

How to get your war on.

If, like me, you find it fitfully amusing that every new threat regardless of its potency must always be described as the most deadly and worst since the year dot, you'll find a lot to delight you in UNSC Resolution 2249.  Passed unanimously last weekend and drafted principally by the French in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it's an absolute classic of the genre.  It is after all one thing for a idiot politician playing to the gallery to declare Islamic State to be a bigger threat to international peace and security than Hitler/Napoleon/Genghis Khan/Black Death/the discovery of fire, and quite another for the UN Security Council to agree and declare that anyone and everyone if they feel like it can join in the fun of chucking high explosives at "an evil death cult".

As that's what 2249 does.  It really does say that Islamic State "constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security".  Global?  Unprecedented?  Islamic State and its fighters might slaughter anyone they feel like and draw recruits from a wide variety of nations, but are they really a major threat to Japan, say, or your pick of any one of the South American nations?  Yes, they've executed hostages from China and Japan, but a threat?  

When it comes to unprecedented, on what reading of history exactly?  Are we talking since the creation of the UN or going further back?  Islamic State is a threat, certainly, but far more of one to the Middle East than anywhere else.  It was only able to expand as it has thanks to the failures of governance in Iraq and Syria; it calls itself a state and tries to operate as one but no state can last long when it has little real popular support and projects its power through violence.  It can send cells of supporters into democracies to launch attacks, and yet such tactics will bring its demise closer.  The threat might paradoxically in its death throes increase, as it loses ground and its safe havens, and the threat will likely not be extinguished entirely as another group drawing on the same ideology will rise, but Islamic State itself can be defeated.  The threat is only unprecedented if you have no knowledge whatsoever of the past, and crucially, if you want it to be such.

And politicians do want it to be so.  It's why the resolution also calls on "Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures", the UN's traditional euphemism for military action.  Whether that precisely makes our proposed joining in with the bombing legal or not is up for debate, although for most politicians that would be more than enough.  Indeed, Cameron and friends have been declaring that action without a UN resolution would be legal as it would be in self-defence.  That's based on an extremely broad reading of what constitutes self-defence, but then state sovereignty has been in retreat for some time, or at least has for states that aren't in the free world.  If anyone is worried about the plethora of countries that are involved or have been in bombing Islamic State, which is currently in double figures and might well at some point go beyond the 20 mark, then they aren't yet.  Come on down everyone, eastern Syria is so bracing!

Syria is the ultimate conclusion of the insanity of Western foreign policy post 9/11.  Taking the worst aspects of 80s foreign policy, which was to pick on a shithole nation and either supply and arm murdering bandits, for which see Nicaragua, or bomb it/invade it, for which see Tripoli/Grenada and combining it with the liberal interventionism of the 90s, not a single country the US/UK has bombed is a better place for it.  If you want an example of when intervention does work, you could look at Mali, but as last weekend demonstrated problems remain even there.  Syria is the culmination of the initial mistake of invading Iraq, the mistakes made post-invasion, and mistakes made since the uprising against Bashar Assad.  This is not to say we are overwhelmingly responsible, as we are not.  We might have created the conditions in which a group like Islamic State could flourish, but we didn't force the Iraqi Shia to persecute the Sunnis to the point where a substantial minority if not majority would ally with IS.  We did not invent the jihadist way of thinking, even if at times we sponsored groups that subscribed to it and have had a major role in the spreading of the ideology.

Without wanting to speak for those with similar views to mine, what I suspect most of us want is recognition, however slight, that we are here in part because of those mistakes.  I don't want an apology, although others might; I want our policy going forward to be informed by those mistakes.  To an extent, some lessons have been learned, as was proved in Libya.  Rather than try and rebuild a state we smashed, we left as soon as Gaddafi was dead.  Enjoy your liberation, we're off now.  We went from one extreme to another, with predictable results when Gaddafi was the state, as the Ba'ath in Iraq was the state and Assad in Syria is also the state.

It's also true that Iraq/Afghanistan have rightly made us wary of "putting boots on the ground".  That is an undoubted positive, as it's what groups like IS want more than anything else.  What we have not learned is that a secular dictator is in some cases preferable to the chaos of what comes after.  This doesn't mean we should have supported Mubarak in Egypt for instance, or have acquiesced to the military coup which overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood, but that a feeble and contained Gaddafi is preferable to the civil war that has followed there.  In the face of IS and al-Nusra as well as all the other jihadist and Islamist groupings in Syria, demanding Assad leave immediately as we have been for years now has been a madness.  Yes, to an extent Assad has enabled those groups through his butchery, and there is an extremely arguable case that if we had intervened early in the uprising much of the carnage could have been avoided.  This overlooks however that it was not long before the Islamist rebels dominated the opposition, and that the cash from the Sunni Gulf states which subsequently went to those rebels would have without doubt gone to political parties instead with much the same views.  Seeing Syria as purely a civil conflict is too simplistic - it is a regional, proxy conflict.

At the same time we should take a step back and consider what would have happened had we intervened against Assad in 2013As Flying Rodent tweeted, no one seems to think it odd that a mere two years later we must now urgently target the very force that would have benefited most had we intervened.  Discount the idea we were merely going to chuck bombs at a range of targets in retaliation for the Ghouta attacks, as that made no sense then and even less now.  It would have been Libya a second time, with likely co-ordination with rebels on the ground.  Whether or not IS would have taken complete control is arguable, but a scenario where the jihadists even if fighting each other are in majority control would be the all but certain outcome.  Difficult as it is to imagine, the potential for further ethnic cleansing, even genocide and for more refugees fleeing than have already would have been massive.

Are our politicians grateful they were prevented from making that horrific mistake?  No, because they care far more about their own prestige and "our standing" in the world than such things.  Matthew d'Ancona informed us a few weeks ago of how Cameron and friends would never forgive Miliband for inadvertently stopping their march to war.  George Osborne yesterday told Andrew Marr that bombing IS is less about destroying the group and more about ourselves: "whether we want to shape the world or be shaped by the world", the chancellor claiming we had "retreated into ourselves a bit" after Iraq and the economic crash.  Buying the most useless and most expensive military aircraft ever created is about "projecting power abroad in order to defend ourselves at home".  It's no use whatsoever against non-state actors, the biggest threat we face and will continue to face according to the strategic defence review, but we must project our power in order to defend ourselves.

What the proposed war against IS comes down to in the end is our perceived standing in the world, our relationships with our allies, the vanity of politicians, and the one remaining way in which they can sell themselves to the voters.  Not bombing IS when every other major nation is just can't be allowed.  We must do something, even if it's completely negligible militarily.  We must be seen to be reliable, to not shrink into ourselves, to not be feeble, like the spineless Corbyn.  A P5 nation not involved in the struggle against "a global and unprecedented threat", one that has killed British citizens, even if not yet in Britain itself?  It's just unthinkable.  At the same time, Cameron could not possibly endure the humiliation of being defeated by the Commons for a second time on such a vote, and so it will only go ahead when the government is certain it can win, and by a sizeable majority.  It doesn't matter how bogus the arguments and justifications are for our involvement, especially the idea that by bombing IS in Syria we will reduce the threat to the UK when the opposite is more realistic, so long as they are made repeatedly and with force.

Lastly, there's the old Adam Curtis Power of Nightmares thesis.  Politicians have abandoned so much else which they used to control to either the markets or regulators.  They claim not to be able to buck the market in order to save jobs.  They can claim to have restored economic security and credibility until the next crash arrives.  What they can still do is pledge to protect us.  It doesn't matter if the wars they've fought in order to protect us have demonstrably, objectively made us less safe, as there is always a new threat more serious than the last about to come along.  It doesn't matter if they restrict civil liberties or want the ability to see our every interaction online as long as they say it's to stop terrorists in their tracks.  So long as we are acting elsewhere in order to stop the war from coming home, it doesn't matter.  It worked for over 10 years in Afghanistan.  It will undoubtedly work with Syria too.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2015 

14 years of war, and it's whose fault again?

It's a tale in essence of two deleted tweets.  On Friday night at 10, while the siege at the Bataclan was still on-going, John Rentoul of the Independent, noted Blair fan and supporter of assorted interventions sent out a message asking "Will Corbyn say France made itself a target?"  He fairly swiftly erased it, and the next morning made a fulsome apology.  Stop the War Coalition meanwhile tweeted out a link to an article it had sourced from a certain Chris Floyd, titled "Paris reaps whirlwind of western support for extremist violence in Middle East".  They too later deleted the tweet, and the article from their site. 

You can no doubt guess which of these messages was brought up in the House of Commons this afternoon.  In fact, it wasn't made reference to just the once, but three times, all by Labour MPs.  The article itself, despite being fairly standard, simplistic anti-war boilerplate does not blame France or the French in the slightest.  It makes no direct reference to France's taking part in strikes against Islamic State.  It condemns the attacks in no uncertain terms, as does the actual statement from Stop the War.

This makes no odds, for there are only two groups of people that care what the Stop the War coalition thinks about anything.  First, the Stop the War coalition; and second, those who got their war in Iraq but ended up losing the argument.  Ever since they've wasted their time pointlessly trolling the StWC, achieving precisely nothing except making themselves feel better.  The prior example to this was activists from the Syria Solidarity UK group turning up to the last StWC public meeting.  SSUK wants a "limited" UK military intervention in Syria; StWC doesn't.  Surprise, there was conflict, spun as the StWC refusing to listen to ordinary Syrians, even while the actual peace talks between the various powers involved in the war have no Syrian involvement whatsoever.

The most egregious remarks in the Commons came from Ian Austin.  In his view those suggesting that Paris had "reaped the whirlwind", or that "Britain's foreign policy has increased not diminished the threats to our own national security are not just absolving the terrorists of responsibility, but risk fuelling the sense of grievance and resentment which can develop into extremism and terrorism".  David Cameron agreed.  "We have to be very clear to those people who are at risk of being radicalised that this sort of excuse culture is wrong. It’s not only wrong for anyone to argue that Paris was brought about by Western policy. It is also very damaging for young Muslims growing up in Britain to think that any reasonable person could have this view."  This it's worth noting came after Cameron had pointedly responded to Jeremy Corbyn stating President Obama had recognised that Islamic State grew out of the Iraq war by saying "we should not seek excuses for a death cult".

At times like these it's hard not to wonder if you've gone through the looking glass.  Forget for a second about the clear attempt to frame those who so much as suggest that foreign policy might have played a role, not in the Paris attacks themselves, but in the wider threat we face as terrorist enablers.  Forget that some Labour MPs are so caught up in their hatred of Jeremy Corbyn they are willing to ignore President Obama and Tony Blair, both of whom have recognised that Islamic State owes its existence to the Iraq war.

Let's instead just focus on the idea that our foreign policy over the past 14 years has decreased the terrorist threat.  Austin was referring to the speech Corbyn was due to give on Saturday but cancelled in light of the Paris attacks, where he would have said that "For the past 14 years, Britain has been at the centre of a succession of disastrous wars that have brought devastation to large parts of the wider Middle East. They have increased, not diminished, the threats to our own national security in the process."  

Which part of that statement is incorrect?  The security services, the home secretary, the prime minister, all inform us that the threat we face from terrorism is the most serious it has ever been.  Have those wars made us safer?  For short periods they might have done, prior to Islamic State rising again, with al-Qaida struggling to stay relevant.  That is surely not the case now, when our failures in Iraq, even if we are not even close to being fully responsible, have undeniably helped Islamic State to grow.  Our policy on Syria, of hoping that by letting or encouraging the Saudis, Qataris and Emirate states to fund whichever Islamist/jihadist groups they felt like would lead to the fall of Assad has not decreased the threat.  It has increased it.

So too would joining in with the airstrikes on Islamic State increase the threat we face.  Don't though take it from me; take it from our American allies, with the defence secretary no less stating that Russia would pay the price for its intervention.  Well golly, they did, didn't they?  The Daily Beast went so far as to report that some in the US government "privately delighted in the news that Russia was made to pay".  Seeing as the prime minister and other politicians are so keen to police what are and what are not acceptable views on foreign policy, we could also remember that earlier on Friday Cameron was insisting killing Mohammad Emwazi was "a blow at the heart of Isil".  The Sun's front page, before it realised it was in appalling taste in light of what was happening but not before 20 had already been confirmed dead, had a picture of Emwazi with the headline "JIHAD IT COMING".  It's perfectly fine to say that our enemies had it coming and enjoy the schadenfreude, but when someone suggests perhaps there could be a link between our failures and terrorist attacks it's time to get out the ducking stool.

The fact is that to plenty of Labour MPs and their friends in the media, their real problem with Corbyn has always been his views on foreign policy more than anything else.  It admittedly doesn't help when he fails to explain himself clearly, whether it's in interviews or at meetings of the PLP.  It was painfully obvious however that his comments on "shoot to kill" to Laura Kuenssberg were in relation to manhunts, not in bringing an end to situations similar to those in Paris.  Plenty of his critics are happy to be wilfully obtuse so long as it's seen to damage him.  Things like how "shoot to kill" policies have gone horribly wrong in the past, or how the two murderers of Lee Rigby, who charged at the police while armed were not shot dead are unimportant.  When it comes to Corbyn's comments on the legality or alternatives to the drone strike on Emwazi, they point to how it would be impossible to have acted otherwise.  It almost certainly would have been, and yet time and again the same people make the case for military intervention without the slightest thought for the implications or to the how it should happen as opposed to the why it must right now.

If the prospect of Corbyn attending the Stop the War Christmas fundraising party really is enough to make shadow cabinet ministers consider resigning, perhaps it's time they re-examined their priorities.  How exactly did they think Corbyn was going to respond to a terrorist attack on the scale of Paris?  Did they honestly believe he would come out swinging, agreeing entirely with Dave in his "the case for action has grown stronger since Paris" claim?  Did they really think he would go all gung-ho for the sake of it, when the best thing an opposition leader can do is to urge calm and for cool heads to prevail?  Do they genuinely imagine that if Corbyn came over the military hard man that the public would be impressed by it?

Of course they don't.  The only thing John Rentoul did wrong it turns out is sending his tweet too soon.  It doesn't seem to occur to Corbyn's opponents that the reason they're stuck with him at least for now is because of their own failures.  They lost to a near pacifist hard leftist and rather than consider if there's a reason why the Labour party membership voted for such a person, they insist on carrying on regardless.  The attempt to pillory and silence anyone who thinks there might be more to attacks like the ones in Paris than they hate us and our freedoms is predictable, but also revealing of a total refusal to accept even the most basic lessons of the past 14 years.  What amazes above all however is that after those 14 years, somehow, incredibly, it's the people that have failed to stop any of those wars that are the ones accused of making excuses for and giving succour to the terrorists.

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Monday, November 16, 2015 

The inevitable Paris attacks post.

(This is long, nearly 3000 words long, and concerns the attacks in Paris.  If either of those things and the necessity to discuss unpleasant truths, such as about foreign policy trouble you, best not to read it.)

Over the weekend, I've been racking my brains, trying to find the right words to describe those who carried out the attacks in Paris on Friday night.  So many just don't seem either adequate to the task, don't seem to convey the full horror, if not of the shootings outside restaurants or the bombings outside the Stade de France, then definitely of the assault on the Bataclan and what went on inside the concert venue.  Many have gone with barbarians, but that carries many connotations with it, just as so many other adjectives do also.  Vermin, scum, filth, they all allude back to a previous time in Europe when ordinary people were described as a disease, a cancer, a bacteria, in order to dehumanise them to the point where they could be targeted, discriminated against, and ultimately, annihilated.

The jihadists of Islamic State are called many things they're not too.  Nihilistic for one, although they often seem set upon destruction for its own sake, so it's understandable.  To a certain extent they are a cult, as they certainly display cult-like traits, and yet cults tend for the most part not to be outwardly homicidal, more often suicidal.  There are exceptions, like Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that released sarin on the Tokyo underground, but they're rare.  One tweeter called them "miserable, spiteful, pious, joyless [and] boring", while Camilla Long settled on a "bunch of self-important, cunty old dads".

Cunts.  Yeah, I think that sums it up.  These people are cunts.  They are not inhuman, but they do not display the slightest sign of basic humanity.  They are oblivious to everything that contradicts their world view, living in their own solipsistic, hateful parody of the life the rest of us experience.  Despite how some of them, perhaps only a matter of a couple of years ago might have been out on a Friday night to see an act at the Bataclan or a similar venue, now they believe it is justified to slaughter people they may have once stood alongside in pursuit of an unattainable goal.  It helps of course they might consider music other than acapella singing to be haram, that men and women were mixing freely, that alcohol was being drank, that drugs will have been taken, that some would have a met a lover there, even if only for the one night, but really that's secondary.  Takfirist jihadists kill people because they can and because many of them enjoy it, especially if they're "apostates".  They target the West and Westerners especially because they hope above hope to sow discord, to inspire a military response, especially one involving Western troops, because they know this will bring further recruits to the cause.  The more alienated ordinary Muslims become as a result of such reactions, everyday discrimination, attacks on what some consider to be the ummah, the more they believe will come to accept their world view.

Let's not get onto that quite yet though.  There was something especially depraved about the assault on the Bataclan, the sheer viciousness, the murderous intent, they way the attackers went about killing so many.  Some will disagree vehemently with me on this, but there is an element of masochism about a "mere" suicide bombing, just as there is a far larger one of sadism.  Is there a certain amount of cowardice in pressing a button and dying instantly, not seeing anything of the carnage the act has caused?  Certainly, and yet at the same time it takes an amount of courage as well.  Yes, they have of course been prepared for what they've often volunteered to do, told of the "rewards", of how it helps the overall "fight", but still at the end they have to be ready to die.  The attackers except for one did kill themselves in such a way, but not before they had seen the consequences of their actions.  Not content with merely shooting down their victims, they prodded prone bodies, firing more volleys into those believed to still be alive, in the same way as their fellow fighters have done to those captured or in the wrong place at the wrong time in Syria and Iraq.  We hear of the sadistic joy at least one attacker apparently experienced through his actions, of the terror those still alive went through, expressions of love and saying goodbye that had no apparent effect on the murderers.  For all the violence we have experienced or lived through, it's extraordinarily rare for an act of such evil to happen on a street in the peaceful West.  We forget just how lucky we truly are.

Some of that luck has been down to the jihadists being far more concerned with the spectacular than the practical.  September the 11th managed to be both, taking advantage of the more relaxed attitude to security that had arisen after the chaos of the 70s when plane hijackings were close to being an epidemic.  Time after time post-9/11 plots were disrupted that involved home-made bombs, when so much can go wrong and where often so many people became involved that suspicions arose.  Al-Qaida believed as much in "propaganda by deed" as the anarchists that first came up with the notion did, thinking that the more shocking an attack the more people would be overawed by it into joining up.  They ignored the example shown time after time by single spree killers, where someone with often little more than rudimentary knowledge of firearms can kill dozens before either killing themselves or being shot dead.  If the aim is to kill as many as possible, why rely on explosives with all that can go wrong when basic training in using an automatic weapon takes a matter of hours?

The Mumbai attack showed the potential for the number of casualties, the difficulties that authorities can have in bringing an assault to an end, and still in the main the example was ignored.  Now, after a further experimentation with telling sympathisers to act on their own, to do anything, the sum of all fears might be upon us.  Obviously there are reasons to be cautious, not least when the plots the security services claim to have foiled here have continued to involve relatively primitive "pressure cooker" bombs, or the targeting of armed forces personnel or police officers, but if Islamic State really is changing tactics and encouraging the combination of the practical with the spectacular, we should be deeply concerned.

Indeed, unless the accounts change then the attacks in Paris demonstrated again the limits of bombs.  6 of the 7 known attackers apparently blew themselves up with their suicide belts/vests, and yet it seems only one bystander was killed as a result.  This again may be down to luck and a desire for the spectacular instead of practicalities: the aim seems to have been to get a group of three into the Stade de France itself, only for at least one to be stopped when he was patted down.  If the others then blew themselves up knowing they wouldn't gain entry, as seems to be the case, even worse carnage was prevented.  They seem to have tried to enter after the match had already started also, when they could had they wished detonated their bombs when the streets would have been full of people heading for the stadium.  Again, you have to suspect the aim was for the explosions to happen live on TV, with all the panic that would have caused both inside the stadium and among those watching the home.  The potential for further massive loss of life was thankfully averted.  That the bombs would also seem to have been fairly weak to go by the lack of casualties, despite the bang they produced as documented, further makes clear the difficulties of making explosives vis-a-vis using an AK-47.

Something though clearly has changed in the calculations of Islamic State.  The reason I and some others argued that IS was not that big of a threat to us back home was because it was focused on establishing and defending its "caliphate".  Those who came back from Iraq or Syria having joined it were the equivalent of "drop-outs": either those who couldn't hack being in a war zone from the start, those who developed PTSD or its equivalents, those who were persuaded by relatives to come back, your gap year jihadis, etc.  To leave IS was to be ridiculed for journeying back to the decadence of the West.  Why go back having made the modern day equivalent of the "hijrah"?

Up until Friday IS had not definitively launched an attack outside of the Arab world/Middle East.  The Hyper Cachet attacker claimed to be acting on behalf of Islamic State, but any real link remains unproven.  Likewise, the foiled by chance train gun attack is now being linked back to IS, but that was not made clear at the time.  Now, in the space of not more than a couple of months IS has attacked a peace demonstration by leftists/Kurds in Ankara, Shias in Beirut, likely the Russians through the downing of the Metrojet plane, and lastly Paris.  Paris is still unique in that it seems to have been in the main carried out by French returnees from Syria, but it's also clear that IS is turning its attention further afield.

The question is why.  Some will point towards Islamic State being threatened, and it's true that IS is finally being pushed back to an extent.  Despite the continuing claims that Russia is only hitting the "moderates" in Syria, last week the Syrian army took back an airbase that has been under siege for 2 years by IS thanks in the main to Russian airstrikes.  Palmyra is their next target, which will finally give the lie to the media narrative about the Russian intervention if/when it happens.  Given far greater coverage has been the taking back of Sinjar in northern Iraq, if you can call completely wiping Sinjar from the map after both civilians and IS had fled taking it back.  It could be that IS does believe the noose is tightening, as anyone would when all the major world powers other than the Chinese are bombing you, but the fall is not coming any time soon.  Both of the ground forces ranged against it, the SAA and the Kurds, are weak, even when getting full backing from the air.

A better explanation is that IS is just doing what it does when things have gone relatively quiet: it hits targets that either will or it believes will once again get those sympathetic to its cause back on side.  Killing leftists, Shias, Westerners, knowing what the response will be makes sense, at least to them.  Some have pointed towards an article in Islamic State's Dabiq magazine about "the grey zone", about how 9/11 made everything either black or white, and it could be this is part of some grand strategy and the Paris attack is linked back to that.  It could equally have just become arrogant, believing it's here to stay regardless of the forces ranged against it, and has dramatically overreached when it should still be focused on Syria/Iraq, and not on making its enemies who until now have been relatively content to let the stalemate continue determined to bring it to an end.

It would be lovely to think the Paris attack will concentrate Western minds on Islamic State, and the initial signs look fairly encouraging.  Sadly, there are reasons to doubt this will last, especially when so much else of the response has been as dispiriting as ever.  Hollande's speech to the two houses of parliament today, as predictable as the measures he announced were, are almost precisely the ones Islamic State would have hoped for.  If as looks likely all the other attackers are either French or European nationals, that there was a token Syrian involved who just happened to take his passport with him to be found after the fact suggests IS knew full well how that would be responded to by those who have been warning of the "threat" from refugees.  That so many have fled from their glorious reinstitution of the caliphate has irked them for a long time, the group repeatedly criticising those daring to escape their clutches.  The response from the vast majority of Europeans to the refugee crisis also undermined their propaganda about everyday, habitual discrimination.  How better to trigger a rethink than to send a lone Syrian to make his journey to France along the refugee route, ending in a suicide attack on fans watching a football match involving Germany, whose teams were among those making clear that refugees were welcome?

This is not to pretend that Europe as we know it is not under threat.  It is, just not from refugees.  If a single suicide bomber is enough to bring down the Schengen agreement, then that will be a failure on the part of politicians to defend their actions.  All the same, this is clearly not the end of Europe as we know it, let alone "how civilisations fall" as Niall Ferguson put it.  If we have learned anything from the last 14 years of war, then it surely ought to be that military action pursued on the basis of ideology or out of a sense of revenge will backfire.  Chucking bombs at Raqqa might be useful as catharsis, but it's not one that's advisable.

Likewise, that it is absurd we have 650 "armchair generals" blocking action in Syria appears so only to those "armchair generals" that have been demanding it since at least 2013, only then it was against Assad.  We shouldn't pretend that deciding not to take part in military action against IS in Syria will make us safer, as it probably won't.  Conversely however, there is every reason to believe that taking part in such action will make us even more of a target, and increase the threat.  Those who are pushing for such action should make that clear to the British public: no, we shouldn't be inhibited from intervening due to such threats, but equally the risks of doing so should be plainly stated.

Defeating Islamic State will also require us to accept some harsh home truths.  Whatever the rights or wrongs of the initial Iraq war, it had a major role in the creation of IS and its predecessor organisations.  Our decisions in Iraq have contributed at various stages to Islamic State's fortunes: the insistence on continuing the occupation, on the disbanding of the Iraqi army, the de-Ba'athification process, the attack on Fallujah, the propping up of a sectarian Shia government that led to many Sunnis who had previously fought against and opposed IS coming to support it.  Similarly, our choices in Syria, still continuing today have not helped.  Supporting the revolution to begin with was the right move: continuing to demand the immediate removal of Assad once it became clear that there were no more moderates in the armed opposition to him, or none of any note has been a disaster.  Allowing or turning a blind eye to the Sunni Gulf states arming and funding the jihadist opposition, even if they have not directly done either with IS, has been a disaster.  Islamic State is especially vile and dangerous, but to pretend the likes of al-Nusra or any of the other jihadist rebel groups or alliances are any better is foolish.  Painful as it will to be admit, Russia's intervention has made the most sense of any, regardless of its ulterior motives.  Demanding that Assad leave now without knowing who or what will replace him is not a policy.  It is a madness.

The solution, if there is one, is to continue what we're doing but more intelligently, including working with the Russians.  President Obama is right to rule out using American ground forces, as that's precisely what Islamic State needs to inspire further recruits to the cause, just as the Iraqi insurgency did.  The forces on the ground that we can support, such as the Syrian Arab Army, the Syrian Defence Forces and the Kurds in Iraq have to be strengthened.  Ceasefires if possible on an individual basis with the rebel groups in the west should be negotiated, allowing Syrian forces to turn their attention to IS in the east.  The promise to the rebels will be that once IS has been driven out of Syria as much as it can be, Assad will leave office as soon as possible, and elections will be held.  This will involve both a huge swallowing of pride on our behalf, and the utmost luck and fortune.  It almost certainly won't work, as the non-IS jihadist rebels will not accept it, nor probably will the few remaining moderates.  It is though just about the only option that will lead to IS being defeated sooner rather than later.  If not now, when we will we recognise that our alliances, our mistakes, our continuing arrogance, if not leading directly to Paris, have had a major role in the creation and success of Islamic State?

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Friday, November 06, 2015 

Meanwhile, in bizarro world...

It is "morally indefensible" for Britain not to be blasting fuck out of the latest threat to British streets, the defence secretary has said.

"My colleague in the other place, Lord Farmer, informs me that anal sex among teenage girls in the Home Counties has become so common and frequent that many are reporting to their local GP with incontinence," commented Michael Fallon.  "There is clearly only one solution to this problem, and that is to send our Tornados to the San Fernando Valley to deal with the evil of pornography at source."

"For anyone concerned about the potential for collateral damage, I would like to reassure them by saying that not a single civilian has been harmed in our bombing of Iraq in the past year.  Not one.  Admittedly, there was the unfortunate business of that other British citizen being killed alongside the one who was literally going to bomb us any second, but that was in Syria and was a drone strike, and anyway he was a jihadi too so deserved it."

Asked whether President Obama might object to this attack on American soil, Fallon was nonplussed.  "It would complicate matters, certainly, but that's no excuse for inaction.  The French don't agonise about these things.  They saw the potential danger of the young imitating what went on in that 2 girls 1 cup video, and immediately made it illegal for anyone or anything, whether man, animal or vegetable to defecate.  Their streets are safe, why can't ours be?"

In other news:
Pope says procreation "morally indefensible", demands that abortion be made compulsory
Bear declares shitting outside of woods "morally indefensible", demands safe areas and no fly zone in forest to defend right to shite

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Thursday, November 05, 2015 

Supping with a long spoon, interrupted again.

The poor old government isn't having much luck when it comes to inviting round tyrants for a bit of the old supping with a long spoon.  Xi Jinping turned up just as the British steel industry was collapsing, no thanks to the dumping of the Chinese variety on the world market, and now here comes Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, Egyptian usurper, just as it seems to be emerging that the Russian jet crash in the Sinai last Saturday was likely the result of a bombAl-Sisi, bless him, insisted that the Egyptian government had complete control of the Sinai peninsula, and the crash couldn't possibly have been a result of terrorism.  Like with the Chinese, to suggest otherwise was to insult their good work and name.

Say what you like about Jinping and China's refusal to grant the most basic of human rights, at least he's not been directly responsible for the massacring of hundreds if not thousands of protesters.  Nor did he come to power in a coup, since given a fig leaf of a mandate via a blatantly rigged poll in which he won 96% of the vote.  Of all the world leaders David Cameron has invited to Downing Street in recent years, al-Sisi is without question one of the most illegitimate, and yet unlike with China there doesn't seem to be as much of a hint of human rights being mentioned.  In the government's book, anything's better than the Muslim Brotherhood, regardless of whether or not Mohammed Morsi was elected in relatively free and fair elections.  Reports that further action will be taken against the Brothers, apparently in yet another sop to both al-Sisi and the Saudis are to be expected.

It's a shame then that the government's decision to suspend all flights temporarily to Sharm el-Sheikh in light of the still undetermined cause of the downing of the Metrojet plane have rather put a dampener on it all.  Just like the decision in the aftermath of the attack in Sousse in Tunisia to get any Britishers who wanted to come home out as soon as possible, it's not clear precisely why there is such urgency.  Unless the intelligence is that another attack is imminent, and if there is we are not being told about it, this is an example of once again giving the terrorists what they want and acting after the fact.

If the jet was indeed brought down by a bomb, presumably planted by the affiliates of Islamic State in the Sinai, then the attack was almost certainly an opportunistic one, aimed specifically at the Russians after their intervention in Syria.  If security was or is as lax at Sharm el-Sheikh as has been suggested, then surely the realisation that this was not an accident but terrorism should lead to an immediate review, with any and all staff that could have been involved brought in for questioning and review.  It's extremely rare for jihadists to use the exact same tactics and target twice when it comes to attacks on Westerners, and it's also dubious whether the Sinai affiliate would have the resources to produce two bombs powerful enough to bring down planes in such a short period of time, unless they are being helped directly by Islamic State.  That Islamic State itself has not yet made a fuss about its role isn't necessarily a reason to doubt their involvement: it could be as Charlie Winter from the Quill.i.am Foundation suggests that a propaganda video detailing exactly how they pulled the attack off might yet emerge.

Nor if it does turn out to be the work of IS is it time to once again panic and ramp up security measures at airports in general yet further.  This wouldn't be the first time Russian jets have been brought down by jihadists: two planes were destroyed in 2004 by Chechen suicide bombers.  Of the numerous attempts by al-Qaida and its franchises since 9/11 to blow up aircraft, all have failed.  The success in this instance will likely be due to that lack of security, and will send a signal to airports and airlines operating in the most vulnerable areas to step up their checks and level of vigilance accordingly.  Ruining the holidays of people for little to no reason out of a misplaced sense of better safe than sorry helps no one.  There are many other issues we should be disagreeing with Sisi and Egypt on; this isn't one of them.

Update: Worth a read, as ever, is the War Nerd.  Especially this part:

So at the moment, it’s hard to say which theory works better, bomb or simple sloppiness. And what makes it even harder to guess is the fact that this crash happened after a relentless, sometimes ridiculous, propaganda campaign in the NATO press claiming that Russia would suffer terrible retribution for daring to intervene in Syria.

It wasn't so long ago that suggesting terrorism on British streets could in any way be connected to foreign policy was enough to bring every person on the decent left down directly on your head.  When it's the Russkies getting blowback however...

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Tuesday, November 03, 2015 

Is anything not the fault of Labour and Corbyn?

The reports in both the Guardian and Times this morning that the government will not attempt to bring a motion before the Commons authorising military action against Islamic State in Syria add up to a humiliating defeat for David Cameron, albeit one clouded by the very nature of a vote not taking place.  It allows Downing Street to claim that in fact no decision has been taken, and that at any moment we might find it back on the agenda.  The truth though is surely that the Conservative whips have done the maths, and found that however many Labour MPs they think will support the government, especially if as promised Labour allows a free vote, it won't be enough to overcome the number of Tory rebels.

It's worth remembering that what was or is proposed is so slight as to be all but pointless.  Essentially all the government wants is permission for the military to bomb Islamic State in Syria as well as Iraq, where it has permission to do so courtesy of the Iraqis.  Regardless of any other considerations, this does have a certain logic to it: IS's supply lines and main base are both in Syria, where they moved into space either vacated by the Assad regime or deemed dispensable when the emphasis was on protecting the area surrounding the capital Damascus.  Moreover, despite both sides maintaining plausible deniability, it's been obvious for a long time that the Americans/rest of anti IS coalition and the Syrians have been cooperating when it comes to fighting Islamic State, at least on air strikes.

For any government, especially any recent British government to not be able to get so slight a military initiative through parliament is a remarkable showing of weakness.  Not of the military variety, but of the political.  Two other things are already in the government's favour: that British troops embedded with the American military have carried out air strikes in Syria; and that under the legal justification of HE'S COMING RIGHT FOR US, Cameron authorised the extrajudicial killing of a British citizen via drone strike in the country.  On that very legal basis, it's arguable that the government could claim Islamic State poses a similar threat to this country by its mere presence in Syria, and so dispense with a Commons vote altogether.

Except it's apparent Cameron's standing remains so low with some of his backbenchers, despite his success in winning a small majority, that to act in such a way would be to stretch his capital way too thin.  All Cameron wants really is to say to the rest of the anti-IS coalition, principally the Americans, that we're with you.  This will amount to little more than a very slight further sharing of the military burden, with reports suggesting that of 5,000 air strikes carried out thus far in Iraq, the UK was responsible for 300, or less than 10%.  That he cannot apparently persuade enough of his backbenchers of the importance of such a move vis-a-vis our relationship with the Americans will be all the more alarming to the party's Atlanticist wing.

Cameron's cause would not be so desperate if the campaign against Islamic State looked like being a success.  As today's report by the Foreign Affairs Committee sets out, any advances have been either inconsequential or negated by losses elsewhere.  Islamic State cannot be defeated from the air, and as the possible partners on the ground are either sectarian or unreliable, there is little cause for optimism that any major victories are in the offing.  Ministers know full well they cannot argue that our taking part in raids into Syria will have anything like a dramatic effect, and so are left with appealing to the logic of doing so and making the inconclusive at best arguments about legality.  They aren't so crass as to say out loud how principally it's about making up the numbers in the coalition, knowing that any previous attachment there was to always being alongside the Americans disappeared with Iraq the second time round.  They have almost nowhere to go.

Not that that's prevented our getting our war on in the past.  Cameron's failure is one of authority, of party management, and only then do the actual arguments about chucking a few more bombs at IS come into play.  What is utterly absurd is that just as when the Conservatives and their acolytes pinned all the blame on Ed Miliband for the failure to act against Assad after the Ghouta attacks in 2013, so now they want to blame Labour again without accepting the slightest responsibility themselves.  Apparently there is "not the certainty of support from Labour", as though the opposition should blithely accept the government is acting in good faith and has made a decent case for yet another intervention, when the former is arguable and the latter just simply hasn't happened.   In the Times Roger Boyes (fnarr fnarr) describes Russia's intervention and "Corbyn's non-interventionist legions" as acting as a pincer movement, while even in the Graun mention is made of how a difference of opinion with the leadership, on a free vote no less, could apparently influence reselection after the constituency boundaries have been redrawn.  Such is the paranoia within the PLP at the moment.  It doesn't seem to matter that those who are disposed towards military action have tried their best to help out the government, urging them in the words of John Woodcock to "decide on a strategy that makes a difference" and then set out the case fully.  The government has ignored them, both because said strategy tends to involve no fly zones and safe areas, both now definitively off the table after Russian intervention, and because the government has never been interested in doing anything other than picking up some of the slack from the rest of the coalition.

Which is where the arguments in favour of intervention always fall down.  Our proposed military involvement in Syria has never been about protecting civilians, either in 2013 or today.  There are both good and bad reasons for why this has been the case, but to pretend that either would have a dramatic effect on the humanitarian situation just doesn't follow.  Essentially what were billed as revenge attacks on Assad for using chemical weapons may have morphed into something else, just as the responsibility to protect was invoked in Libya only then to be used to justify regime change, but the case being made was little more than we had to act as President Obama's red line had been breached.  On the contrary, the continued attempts at reaching some sort of settlement, however bleak the chances of negotiations succeeding and then being accepted by everyone other than Islamic State seem, at least offer a smidgen of hope.

This is why it rankles when the likes of Rafael Behr continue to claim that Miliband stopping Cameron getting the hellfire missiles out must then be evaluated by how Assad continues to butcher his people.  Hatred of or hostility to Corbyn outweighs everything else, including capitalising on such Tory weakness, as proved by Labour Uncut claiming the party has outsourced foreign policy to Stop the War, making its foreign policy a "debased joke".  Behr meanwhile writes of how Miliband "indulged" and "deferred" to the left, and how Obama and Cameron are also not wanton warmongers, despite their continuing with the failed ones of their predecessors and making such a success of Libya.  Some might in fact reason that makes them worse - that rather than learn from past mistakes they have carried on with conflicts they never truly believed in.  Where the foreign affairs committee sets out the complexity of the conflict in Syria, and identifies 7 separate points the government should explain in making its case for intervention, many are still insistent on viewing everything as either black or white.

P.S. Worth bringing slightly more attention to is this non-fact sheet from the FCO on just who the moderate opposition are in Syria.  Basically, if they're not Islamic State or al-Nusra, then they're moderate.  To be fair, if we really did limit our engagement with rebels in Syria to all those criteria, we'd be working with about 10 people and a dog, so you can see the FCO's predicament.

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Thursday, October 22, 2015 

Trouble at Milne.

(I am very sorry for the title.)

The response to Jeremy Corbyn appointing Seumas Milne as his director of communications has been pretty much as you would expect.  Considering every past statement and allegiance of Corbyn himself was excavated to be considered fairly and properly by both the media and every other informed person with a social media account, going through Milne's back catalogue of columns in the Guardian has become something of a fun parlour game.  Ooh, look, he said the murder of Lee Rigby was not terrorism in the true sense!  He accused NATO of being the one intent on expansion, rather than Russia!  Milosevic in his view should not have been tried at the Hague!

And so on.  Without a doubt, choosing Milne is the equivalent of a middle finger to all concerned: the media, whom he'll supposedly be dealing with; the rest of the party; and specifically the Guardian, currently going through throes over its next political editor and whether or not he or she will be more sympathetic to Corbyn than Patrick Wintour and his likely successor, Nick Watt will be.  This said, it's of a piece with what's happened to Corbyn so far.  Both he and the media have made it clear where they stand: they don't like each other, it's not likely to change, so what's the point of doing much other than continuing the mutual antagonism?  It's not much of a strategy, but is there another on offer?  The same goes for the party: paranoia is so rife about Momentum, Corbyn's post-campaign campaign group and how as a result every MP millimetres to Corbyn's right will be shortly on notice for deselection it's a wonder the parliamentary Labour party is operating at all.

Few seem to have considered if Milne was anything like Corbyn's first choice, nor have there been many suggestions forthcoming as to whom he should have picked instead.  How many would have drank from what looks such a poisoned chalice?  Milne himself has not left the Graun, apparently instead taking leave, so he doesn't seem sure of how long it's going to last either.

All this said, the response has been as laughable as it has predictable.  Milne is not a great columnist, but he makes what are often fairly standard socialist arguments with force.  Some weeks he's dead wrong and some weeks he's right in spite of himself.  Probably his most objectionable column is the one dealt with by Adam Barnett on Left Foot Forward, as written in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack.  Let's not pretend Milne is the only person on the left to have sullied himself on that score, as hopefully most of those who also equivocated at the time now recognise.  That said, one has to hope his "still less" statement on the Jewish victims was just a slip rather something more revealing.

Milne's appointment should then be considered in relation to the reasons why Corbyn won in the first place.  Lesser factor as it is, foreign policy cannot be discounted entirely.  Labour can essentially be divided into four camps when it comes to interventionism: the irreconcilables, like Corbyn and a few others; those who can be convinced, but are always sceptical; the humanitarians, like Jo Cox; and the prestigious, as Jim Murphy has revealed himself to be in his quite remarkable article for the New Statesman.

It's a fair assumption that not many of those who voted for Corbyn are keen on interventions full stop, let alone missions without any apparent point, as the one proposed for Syria is.  Despite the defeat of the coalition almost by mistake on Syria in 2013, if anything it seems there are now more MPs in the latter two groups than there were previously, as suggested by the 50 or so reckoned to be likely to vote for joining the raids on Islamic State if and when the Conservatives decide to bring it before the Commons.  Some of these are no doubt part of the "spite" group, determined to vote against Corbyn given the slightest opportunity, but others genuinely do think getting involved in Syria despite everything that's happened is a fantastic idea.

There's not much I can add to the Rodent's post on Murphy's raging bone-on for air strikes that he openly admits won't achieve anything, but will still be a "legitimate posture for a P5 nation".  It does seem odd for him to quote Dean Acheson, on how Britain after Suez and the empire had not yet found a role for itself.  This was in 1962, when US involvement in Vietnam was already beginning to ramp up.  Acheson, notably, later turned against the war despite originally supporting it.  

If nothing else, Murphy is at least being honest.  And yet shouldn't the public and the troops themselves know if essentially what they're being asked to do is not in any sense practical, but merely to keep up with our allies, expressing our power by blasting fuck out of a country on the other side of the world?

Which is precisely the problem with the argument being made by the government for joining in the bombing of Islamic State.  There is absolutely no sense of strategy behind it; what difference will our involvement make beyond taking a tiny amount of the slack off the Americans and others that have been taking part up till now?  Into this breach have stepped the likes of Jo Cox, and yet as previously argued, they apparently don't see any point in explaining how either a no fly zone or safe havens would work in practice, rather than merely in rhetoric.  I tried getting an answer out of Clara Connolly when she wrote in support of Cox, only to be told that it would be a "doddle" to impose a no fly zone, although understandably it would be far more difficult to persuade the Russians to cease operating in such zones.

As for the safe zones, answer came there none.  Others, like Dan Fox, have set out how, posing six questions, none of which are easily answered and almost certainly never will be.  He nonetheless supports intervention, although he also voices the bizarre opinion that only two forces are currently bombing in Syria: the Syrians themselves and the Russians, rather overlooking all the other nations that have done so in the very recent past or still are.  The fact of the matter is that for all these fine words, we're not interested in establishing such zones, and even if we were the problems and potential to be playing into the hands of one side or the other were we to try are all but insurmountable.  Turkey has been arguing for some time for such zones, only for it be dismissed out of hand by the Americans and ourselves, most likely for the simple reasoning that no group on the ground in Syria can be trusted to protect civilians in such a way, and so it would require either a UN peacekeeping force or Western "boots on the ground", in the cliche.  Whom would straight away be a target for the jihadists who prize killing Westerners over everything else.

In spite of all this, for some, like Kate Godfrey, something must be done even if it is simply to bomb for the sake of it.  To her, Seumas Milne is an apologist for fascism, and she knows because she has been to Syria and Iraq, rather than just sat here and pontificated about it.  She appeals to authority, her own, makes clear how she has seen the suffering, and that as a result to appoint Milne is to devalue everything Labour stands for, to be ashamed in front of the world.

Her argument, taken on its own, is fair enough.  Over the top, but fair enough.  It is this very argument though, as well as the way that it's made, the self-righteousness combined with the belief that we have to help such people without considering the practicalities, all while ignoring past failures, that is a factor in the rise of Corbyn.  As Murphy urged us to get over Iraq, like Connolly in her response to me blamed Iraq for the failures in Syria, both are forgetting Libya.  It's easy to forget, so I don't blame them.  Nor is it just Libya, it's Afghanistan too.  Many are tired of war for the sake of the war, not least when the arguments made in its favour are so lacking or completely transparent.  Much of what has happened in Syria for instance is a direct result of the Libyan intervention, the invoking of the responsibility to protect and the subsequent using of the UN resolution to force regime change, without anyone accepting the concept has been devalued by that very abuse.  When these arguments are still being made after the Russian intervention has changed everything, and still the same people would like us to go further to the point where they're seemingly willing for there to be a showdown between the West and Russia to see who blinks first, it's difficult to not respond in kind.  

Over to you, Seumas.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2015 

Never seen a tinderbox I didn't want to light.

(This was written yesterday, but I unfortunately arrived home to find my desktop no longer so much as wants to power on.  Updates are likely to be sporadic until it's fixed, as while writing posts on a phone is fine, formatting and adding links in the usual way is an utter chore.)

Let me get this straight.

Israel looks to be in the first stages of the third intifada, the Palestinians having lost hope in either Hamas or Fatah being able to deliver their own state.  The world looks on as the Israelis themselves become ever more hardline, as ever more territory is stolen and as ever more settlements are built.  Resistance now is to throw stones, stab ordinary Israelis.  Both are responded to with bullets.

In Turkey, for the second time, a march by Kurds and socialists is attacked by suicide bombers.  As on the first occasion in Suruc, the Kurdish HDP accuses President Erodgan's AKP party of being involved, either turning a blind eye to Islamic State plotting, or actively collaborating with the jihadists.  For it to happen once can be dismissed.  For it do so again, with the AKP having embarked on a new conflict with the PKK as part of a cynical manoeuvre to try and gain a majority in the second general election in the year, the charge is all the more difficult to dismiss.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, the Saudi coalition continues under the authorisation of a UN Security Council resolution to bomb whatever it feels like, the aim supposedly being to defeat the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels.  Thousands are dead, and there is practically no media coverage as it is all but impossible for reporters to gain access, not to forget the potential danger of being in what may as well be a free fire zone.

And then we have Syria and Iraq, where currently pretty much everyone and their mother is either bombing one or the other, or if not bombing then funding or funnelling arms to one side in what are both civil conflicts, but also proxy wars and grand theatres for leaders to show just how serious and tough they are by chucking high explosives at people who might be bad men but might equally be secular and moderate or civilians.

Somehow, quite incredibly, despite politicians knowing all of this, not least because some of them have been authorising the vapourising of British citizens who otherwise would have been coming right for us, one of the few people saying hang on, perhaps we shouldn't add to this chaos by getting even further involved is the one getting criticised.  According to John Woodcock MP, Diane Abbott is trolling her own party by continuing to argue that what's being proposed currently will not help Syrian civilians one iota.

The very best case currently being made for our own little intervention in Syria was set out jointly by Andrew Mitchell and Jo Cox.  According to them, Syria is our generation's test, our Rwanda, our Bosnia, our Kosovo, our responsibility.  They say we must get back to basics, that primarily Syria and the Syrians themselves are the issue.  Their first two recommendations are that both the humanitarian effort to help refugees and the diplomatic effort to try to reach a political solution must be intensified.  No one could disagree.

Then we have the proposed military component.  The word how is not used once.  It is "not ethical to wish away the barrel bombs", they write, without explaining how they can be stopped.  "We need a military component that protects civilians", they say.  They do not propose how.  Any safe havens will need to be protected by forces on the ground, and a no fly zone, which would also be needed, would have to be enforced.  They do not suggest which or whose ground forces would be used, whether it would be the Kurdish militias (now also being accused of razing villages), "moderate" rebels, Turkish troops or Western forces.  They do not explain how a no fly zone could possibly work when the skies are full of planes and drones from numerous nations, nor how the Russians would react when just this weekend they have been in talks with the Americans on how to avoid any potential misunderstandings or clashes between the two sides.

"Preventing the regime from killing civilians, and signalling intent to Russia, is far more likely to compel the regime to the negotiating table than anything currently being done or mooted," they argue.  This is about as absurd a reading of the conflict as it's possible to imagine.  They seem to imagine that if only the Syrian government was prevented from killing more civilians it would throw in the towel, when the Russian intervention makes it pretty clear it was the gains being made by the non-Islamic State rebels that were causing real concern. The Russian involvement has changed everything, and yet still they seem to think there's room for yet more slinging around of missiles, as the safe zones idea is now even more of a non-starter than it was previously.  

When those making the best possible case still can't answer the most basic questions of how and who, it makes clear just how removed from reality our discourse has become that it's the critics who get the articles written about them.  We simply cannot get used to the idea of not getting off when everyone else has already shot their bolt.  Not even the potential of an incident with the Russians and all that would involve dissuades them.  We see chaos, and the only response is to want to create more.

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Wednesday, September 30, 2015 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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