Monthly Archives: December 2015

Stella Creasy: beyond wishful thinking

Stella Creasy: beyond wishful thinking
by Ian Sinclair
22 December 2015

Stella Creasy. Labour MP for Walthamstow since 2010. She’s brilliant, isn’t she?

Her important work leading prominent campaigns against payday loan lenders and misogynist online abuse has had the liberal media and many activists and progressives falling head over heels in love with her. “In a field populated by career politicians guided by self-interest, Creasy is a rare thing: a woman of conviction”, enthused the Observer’s Elizabeth Day in 2012. “Creasy’s concern for her constituents goes beyond clever public relations or mere political rhetoric.” A year later the Guardian’s Esther Addley was singing her praises for making “one of the most striking and effective parliamentary debuts in recent times”. The Labour List website selected her as MP of the Year in 2012. Spectator magazine named her Campaigner of the Year in 2011. ConservativeHome has called her “Labour’s most interesting member of parliament.” Catherine Mayer, Time magazine’s Europe Editor, called her “Labour’s leader in waiting”. Creasy is “seriously clever but not… lacking in human understanding”, noted Meyer. “She’s engaged but not doctrinaire or tribal.”

Compare this gushing coverage to the following political record:

  • In March 2013 Creasy abstained on the vote about the Coalition Government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseekers Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.
  • In July 2015 Creasy abstained on the vote for the Welfare Bill, which will cut tax credits, reduce the benefit cap to £20,000 (£23,000 in London) and called for £12bn more cuts. According to a leaked government memo, 40,000 more children will sink below the poverty line as a result of the benefit cap. Child Poverty Action Group noted “the majority of households affected by the benefit cap are lone-parent households and the main victims are children”.
  • In March 2011 Creasy voted in favour of NATO intervention in Libya, a chief cause of the ongoing violent chaos in the country which has destabilised surrounding nations, empowered extremists and played a central role in the refugee crisis.
  • In December 2015 Creasy voted with the Tory Government to authorise the UK bombing of Syria, tweeting just before the vote “Hilary benn’s speech has persuaded me that fascism must be defeated.”
  • In January 2015 Creasy voted to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system.
  • Creasy, according to the Guardian, was one of a group of Labour MPs who “grew exasperated by [Ed] Miliband’s leadership and quietly identified [Blairite candidate Liz] Kendall… as having leadership potential”.
  • Creasy backed Blairite candidate David Miliband in the 2010 Labour leadership race.

What these inconvenient facts show is Creasy is very clearly on the right of the Labour Party – a Blairite, basically – when it comes to many domestic and international political questions. She has failed to oppose Tory Government policies that will push more children and poor women into poverty, she has supported a highly interventionist foreign policy that will likely led to more violence and civilian deaths, and she has supported the most right-wing leaders in Labour leadership contests.

So, what’s going on here? How can Creasy be lauded by activists, progressives and the liberal media with the voting record and political actions set out above? To get a flavour of this support, witness the extreme deference of Feminist campaigner Karen Ingala Smith’s reaction to Creasy backing UK airstrikes in Syria (an action, let’s not forget, that will likely kill women and children and increase the terror threat to the UK): “I didn’t agree with your choice of vote re Syria but I respect that you made the decision that you felt was best. I also appreciate that you’ll be more informed about this issue that [sic] me… I’m grateful to have you as MP and would proudly stand beside you in solidarity.”

Is Creasy’s positive image among many people who identify as “Left-wing” simply down to ignorance of her actual politics? Have they been fooled by her benign sounding official title of “Labour & Co-operative MP”? She is certainly a good communicator and comes across as a genuinely sincere, human person. Perhaps this has blinded people to the reality of her voting record?

I wonder too if Creasy’s popularity is down to what Owen Jones describes in his book Chavs as the Left’s “shift away from class politics towards identity politics over the last 30 years.” In support of his argument Jones cites a search conducted of the academic resource MLA International Bibliography from 1991 to 2000. “There were 13,820 results for ‘women’, 4,539 for ‘gender’, 1,862 for ‘race’, 710 for ‘postcolonial’ – and just 136 for ‘working class’.” I suspect for many of Creasy’s supporters Feminism is their primary concern – and Creasy has certainly done great, essential work on defending women’s rights. But are people confusing Creasy’s Feminist activist with a wider radical outlook, when the two do not necessarily go together – and certainly don’t with Creasy.

And do we need to expand our understanding of what Feminist analysis and activism look like? Responding to the Guardian’s endorsement of Yvette Cooper in the Labour leadership contest because “a female leader would be a plus in itself”, Selma James and Nina Lopez noted that as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions Cooper abolished income support and extended Labour’s work-capability assessment for sick and disabled people. “The money that recognised unwaged caring work, and enabled mothers to leave violent men, and disabled people to live independent lives is now gone or under threat”, explained James and Lopez. “Better men against sexist austerity than women for it.”

To be clear, this is not just about Creasy but the propensity of a certain section of liberal and leftist opinion to be taken in by slick PR, meaningless platitudes, impressive rhetoric and media hype – see Barack Obama circa 2008, Tony Blair in 1997, 2010 Nick Clegg and Hilary Benn’s Syria speech earlier this month. It seems to me that meaningful progressive change in society will only come when we bypass this kind of media-driven wishful thinking and will be built upon an accurate understanding of the political reality we wish to change. And the unfortunate truth is Stella Creasy has some very ugly politics indeed.

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My favourite non-fiction books of 2015

My favourite non-fiction books of 2015
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 December 2015

A polemical, first-hand expose of the corporate elites who rule and ruin the world for the rest of us, ex-Financial Times journalist Matt Kennard’s The Racket is investigative journalism at its best. “A class war is being fought and the poor are losing”, he notes. Covering the Turkish repression of the Kurds, the continuing US-led plunder of South America and the downtrodden of the US itself, the book makes a good case for Kennard being a true heir to John Pilger and the older generation of muckrakers.

Like Kennard, as a long-time advocate for nonviolent revolution, Peace News provides an alternative way of viewing and understanding world events. Their latest book, The World Is My Country by Emily Johns and Gabriel Carlyle, continues this non-conformist tradition by remembering and celebrating the people and movements that opposed the mass slaughter of the First World War. Inspired by To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild’s majestic 2011 book about the British anti-war movement, the short booklet is comprised of Carlyle’s well researched accounts of the war resisters and ten original posters painted by Johns. The global perspective they provide is particularly impressive. “The very term ‘The First World War’ is highly ideological”, the authors note. “Viewed from the Global South there was already a ‘world war’ in progress on 27 July 1914: namely, a war by the European (and American) empires against much of the rest of the world.”

David Rosenberg’s Rebel Footprints: A Guide To Uncovering London’s Radical History is also concerned with resistance and rebellion. Interwoven with practical walking guides, Rosenberg tells the story of the capital’s radical history from the 1830s to the 1930s. From the massive Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common in 1848, to the middle-class dissidents of the Bloomsbury set and the class-conscious Suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst these accounts will no doubt inspire readers to agitate against today’s Tory Government and the corporations who cast such a long shadow over our democratic institutions.

Roundtable: how should the West respond to the Paris attacks?

Roundtable: how should the West respond to the Paris attacks?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
16 December 2015

Following the Paris terrorist attacks on 13 November 2015, the British Government has got its wish to join the air campaign against Islamic State (IS) in Syria, winning the parliamentary vote on 2 December 2015.

Ian Sinclair asked campaigners and academics to give their analysis on the on-going crisis.

Kate Hudson, General Secretary, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Seeking to continue or escalate western intervention and war in the Middle East, as our government does, is the worst response, either to the Paris atrocities or as a solution to the region’s problems. The war on terror unleashed this nightmare – the failures of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya – following more than a century of colonialism which created the conditions for the rise of terrorist organisations. Further war and intervention will only make the situation worse, fuelling support for terrorist organisations; war is not the answer. The UN resolution outlines crucial steps to help achieve a solution, including closing off funding channels and recruitment routes to Islamic State (IS). These two initiatives alone would significantly assist in breaking the strength of IS. Increased bombing will only boost their support and result in the deaths of countless innocents. We must stand united against any attempts to divide our communities, to stoke the fires of racism and Islamophobia. We must stand in defence of refugees, so many of whom are fleeing the very forces that have inflicted this tragedy on France. Neither they, nor our Muslim communities, can be made scapegoats for the terrorists. Only a negotiated political settlement can bring peace to Syria and the region, and ultimately there has to be a rebalancing of international relations. As part of that we must fight for a new foreign policy for Britain, rejecting its imperialist past and present, rejecting its interventionism, whether military, political or economic. The long road to peace can only be built through respect, equality and solidarity amongst peoples.

Hugh Roberts, Professor of North African and Middle Eastern History, Tufts University

Mr Cameron’s proposal to bomb ISIS in Syria is wrong. It will inflict scant damage on ISIS, which will have evacuated likely targets in advance and, as for solidarity with the French people, is an entirely empty gesture. ISIS can be defeated only once sufficient ground troops are engaged against it. The only troops available in Syria are those of the Kurds, which Turkey, with NATO’s assent, is impeding, and those of the Assad regime, which can fully engage ISIS only once the other rebel forces arrayed against it have been defeated. This is what Russia is undertaking. The Western powers should have adopted a variant of this policy a long time ago and have themselves to blame for the fact that it is being pursued by Russia in its own interest instead of by an international coalition in the general interest. Since Cameron’s proposal does not have the agreement of Damascus, it suggests that London remains wedded to the regime change agenda that has brought so much destruction on Syria, not to mention Iraq and Libya. The pursuit of this agenda is the single most important cause of the terrorism which has hit Beirut, Paris and Tunis in the last three weeks. This agenda should be clearly renounced and our government induced to support and promote a negotiated settlement of the Syrian conflict as the indispensable prerequisite of dealing with ISIS.

Joe Emersberger, activist and commentator on Western foreign policy

Sadly, there are no quick and easy solutions to the problem of anti-Western terrorism. If the UK decided tomorrow to completely alter its foreign policy (refuse to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, refuse to support Israel’s occupation of Palestine and its war crimes; refuse to pour fuel on the fire of Syria’s civil war either through airstrikes or other support for non-existent “moderate rebels”) all that would greatly reduce the risk of terrorism against the UK but not eliminate it. The US and its allies have killed millions of Muslims since 1990, and have long made use of Islamic extremists when it has suited them as they are doing in Syria and as they did in Libya in 2011. Given that history, anyone offering a quick and completely effective way to keep westerners safe from terrorism is either ignorant of the history or ignoring it. Fixing the problem is a difficult and long term undertaking. A country like the UK (or France) would not only have to drastically change its own foreign policy but also pressure the US to change. That‘s very a tall order. On the other hand, there is a very quick and easy way to make the problem worse. Keep doing what has been done – with horrific consequences – for decades.

Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University and author of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies

The attacks seem most likely the work of a Belgium-based cell which, in a sort of franchising system, has used the Islamic State’s banner. It has picked a ‘soft target’ in Parisian suburbs to demonstrate that no amount of French surveillance-state measures can ultimately block its attacks. As a hot-bed of Salafi-jihadism, ever since the beginning of substantial Saudi-Wahhabi donations to its mosques in the 1960s, Belgium has long been suspected of providing conditions conducive to such extremists.  EU or British military action in Syria serves no practical purpose given that the ‘enemy’ is a transnational non-conventional force that can move freely between borders and regroup rapidly wherever states have been sufficiently destabilized. Indeed, a compelling argument can be made that such military action worsens the situation, adding a further layer to the perceived credibility of the Islamic State in its self-claimed anti-Western, anti-imperialist stance. The EU’s response should be to counter the root causes of such European radicalisation, which will involve revisiting its members’ de facto alliances with the state sponsors of such groups or their antecedents along with suitable pressure and condemnation of those states which foster a permissive environment for their wealthy citizens to serve as private sponsors. In their present state, the Western governments are unable and unwilling to develop strategies that can actually thwart the rise and expansion of such movements. Instead, the only workable solution is for the citizens of the Western states themselves to use the mechanisms available to them to force their governments to curtail the foreign policies that continue to arm, equip and provide diplomatic coverage for the states most responsible for the present-day spectre of extremist Islamism.

Symon Hill, socialist pacifist author and campaigner

Nothing can justify the actions of the murderers in Paris. Nearly all commentators and politicians have rightly condemned these attacks. Sadly, few seem willing to demonstrate consistency by condemning other killings of innocent civilians.

These include the killing of more than 2,000 civilians in Yemen by Saudi forces. The Saudi regime is morally comparable to Daesh. Far from bombing the terrorists who run Saudi Arabia, David Cameron and his ministers sell them weapons.

We can only stop terrorist attacks by tackling their causes. We can ask why there are people who want to kill us. To understand is not to justify. Successive UK governments have used UK forces as a tribute band for US foreign policy. To much of the world US forces are both murderous and hypocritical, with Obama and his colleagues condemning terrorism while helping their allies to practise it.

Fewer people are now fooled by the militarist’s trick of presenting the only alternative to bombing as “doing nothing”. The bombing of Syria will kill innocent people and it will not defeat Daesh. Putting pressure on Turkey to seal the border would make a greater difference. Ending UK support for the US and Saudi regimes would change international attitudes. Such options would not suit the aims of the British ruling class, who have far more in common with other elites around the world than they do with their own people. Militarism is international. Our resistance must be international too.

10 facts the government doesn’t want you to know about Syria

10 facts the government doesn’t want you to know about Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
10 December 2015

Following the Paris terrorist attacks on 13 November 2015, the British government has got its wish to join the air campaign against Islamic State (IS or ISIS) in Syria, winning the parliamentary vote on 2 December 2015.

With many of the government’s dubious assertions often either repeated or not examined by the media, in addition to the government choosing not to relay inconvenient information, here is a list of ten key facts that are essential to understanding the West’s involvement in Syria.

Fact 1: The West has been involved in the Syrian conflict since 2012

The dominant narrative, repeatedly pushed by the liberal media, is that the West has declined to get involved in the Syrian conflict, its inaction leading to the conflict escalating out of control.

In the real world the US started helping to arm the Syrian rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government from summer 2012 onwards. By March 2013 the New York Times was quoting experts who said these arms shipments totalled 3,500 tons of military equipment. Citing Jordanian security sources, in the same month the Guardian reported that US, UK and French personnel were training Syrian rebels in Jordan. Later that year the New York Times noted that US and UK intelligence services were secretly working with Saudi Arabia to deliver weapons to the rebels. The US and UK cooperation with Saudi Arabia was covert, the report explained, because “American and British intelligence and Arab governments… do not want their support publicly known”. By June 2015 US officials told the Washington Post that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had trained and equipped 10,000 Syrian rebels at a cost of $1bn.

Fact 2: The West has known that extremists were prominent in the Syrian insurgency, and that the arms they sent into Syria have often ended up in the hands of extremists, since 2012

After “extensive interviews with Syria policymakers from the Obama Administration” McClatchy’s Hannah Allam recently noted the Obama Administration “was warned early on [in 2012] that al Qaida-linked fighters were gaining prominence within the anti-Assad struggle.”

Despite this, from 2012 the US has given a wink and a nod to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey to support the Syrian rebels. This use of proxies has continued despite it being clear since at least October 2012 that arms provided by Qatar and Saudi Arabia were going to hardline Islamic jihadists – a  front page New York Times headline stating ‘Rebel Arms Flow is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria’.

What is essential to understand here is that the US already knew Qatar had a predilection for arming extremists, following the December 2012 New York Times online headline: ‘US-Approved Arms for Libya Rebels Fell Into Jihadis’ Hands’. Quoting US officials and foreign diplomats, the report summarises: “The Obama administration secretly gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar last year, but American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants”. US officials were aware of this “Within weeks of endorsing Qatar’s plan to send weapons there in spring 2011”, the New York Times notes.

Fact 3: The US has encouraged ‘moderate’ rebel groups to work with the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, and has probably knowingly supported jihadis itself

In May 2015, Charles Lister, a leading expert on the Syrian insurgency, wrote about the US-led operations room in southern Turkey which co-ordinates the lethal support given to opposition groups in Syria, noting the US-led operations room “specifically encouraged a closer co-operation with Islamists commanding frontline operations,” including the Nusra Front. Furthermore, in July 2015 the New York Times reported that although the US-trained Division 30 Syrian rebels were attacked by the Nusra Front when they entered Syria after their training, US officials said “they expected the Nusra Front to welcome Division 30 as an ally in its fight against the Islamic State.”

In addition, a formerly classified US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) report from 2012 noted that “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” The next sentence of the report is as follows: “The West, Gulf countries and Turkey support the opposition”. US support for “the crazies” in Syria was confirmed by General Michael T Flynn, the Director of the DIA from 2012-14, in an interview with journalist Mehdi Hasan on Al-Jazeera in July 2015.

Fact 4: The West has prolonged the fighting and blocked a peaceful solution to the conflict

According to the prime minister’s official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria ,“since the start of the crisis the UK has worked for a political solution in Syria”.

In reality, by arming and training the Syrian opposition the West has helped to intensify and prolong the conflict. In May 2013 Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations warned the “Western arming of rebels is ill-advised given its… encouragement of escalation and maximalism”. In the same month Dr Christopher Phillips, an Associate Fellow at Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, noted that arming the rebels “will likely exacerbate and prolong the civil war”. More than two years later in October 2015 the New York Times noted that increased levels of US support to the rebels (and Russian support to the Syrian government) “have raised morale on both sides of the conflict, broadening war aims and hardening political positions, making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.”

In addition, Avi Shlaim, Professor Emeritus at Oxford University, recently explained that Western insistence that Syrian president Bashar Assad must step down sabotaged Kofi Annan’s UN efforts to set up a peace deal and forced Kofi Annan to resign. Hugh Roberts, the former Director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, echoes this analysis: “The Western powers… sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting”, he wrote in the London Review of Books. Roberts concludes that “Western policy has been a disgrace and Britain’s contribution to it should be a matter of national shame.”

Fact 5: The West has helped to create the conditions in Syria and Iraq that have allowed IS to grow and prosper

The role of the US-UK invasion and occupation of Iraq in the rise of IS is relatively well known. But very few people make the connection between Western intervention in Syria and the growth of IS. In August 2014, the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn, argued that the “US government as a whole – and foreign powers steer away from one very crucial aspect of the rise of ISIS, which is that in Syria, the West backed the uprising against President Assad, and still does, and this enabled ISIS to develop, gain military experience and then use it back in Iraq.”

This is because, as two former NATO Secretary-Generals, Javier Solana and Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, warned in June 2013: “Rather than secure humanitarian space and empower a political transition, Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country.” [my emphasis added] The Executive Director of the women’s human rights organisation MADRE, Yifat Susskind, agrees, noting in May 2013 that: “Funnelling more arms to the [Syrian] opposition would fuel their brutal battle tactics, intensify the war, and further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.”

Fact 6: The West’s allies in the region have been supporting extremists in Syria, including IS

As mentioned above, the West, as well as working closely with its allies in the region – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to arm the rebels, has also allowed them to support the more extreme Syrian rebel groups. US Vice-President Joe Biden said in October 2014: “Our allies in the region were our largest problem”. Referring to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Biden explained “They were so determined to take down Assad and essentially have a proxy Sunni-Shia war. What did they do? They poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad; except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world”.

According to an August 2014 article in the Washington Post, Turkey “rolled out the red carpet” to Islamic State and other jihadists fighting the Syrian Government. Wounded jihadists from IS and the Nusra Front were treated at Turkish hospitals while Turkish border towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms into Syria. IS “were able to grow in power partly by using the border region of a NATO member – Turkey – as a strategically vital supply route and entry point to wage their war”, the Washington Post notes. Similarly, the Guardian’s Martin Chulov reported in November 2015 that “over the past two years several senior ISIS members have told the Guardian that Turkey preferred to stay out of their way and rarely tackled them directly.”

Fact 7: Western airstrikes in Syria and Iraq have killed hundreds of civilians

Speaking to the House of Commons, the prime minister said there has been “no reports of civilian casualties” from the more than 300 UK airstrikes in Iraq on IS. The government’s claim was helpfully repeated by Labour MP Dan Jarvis and the media, with Iain Dale arguing the French airstrikes immediately after the attacks in Paris “targeted the training camps. So they are not targeting civilians. If you look at the number of civilian deaths from American and French airstrikes they are very, very small.”

Contrast Jarvis’s and Dale’s wishful thinking with the recent Mirror report that noted “Anti-ISIS activists in Syria claim a stadium, a museum, medical clinics and a political building have been hit after France launched airstrikes in retaliation for the Paris terror attack”. More broadly, in August 2015 Air Wars, an organisation run by a team of independent journalists, estimated that the 5,700 airstrikes against IS in Syria and Iraq has killed more than 450 civilians, including more than 100 children.

Fact 8: Western bombing of IS is counterproductive and has likely boosted recruitment to the group

In his official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria, the prime minister stated: “I believe that we should now take the decision to extend British airstrikes against ISIL into Syria, as an integral part of our comprehensive strategy to degrade ISIL and reduce the threat it poses to us.”

The problem with this argument is that Western bombing, as Professor of Peace Studies Paul Rogers explains, plays into IS’s narrative that it is the guardian of Islam under attack from “crusader” forces. Jurgen Todenhofer, a German author who spent ten days with IS in 2014, argues that Western airstrikes “will fill ISIS fighters with joy”, with the inevitable civilian casualties that come from bombing drawing in fresh recruits for their cause. James Comey, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), concurs, telling Congress in September 2014 that US bombing of IS in Iraq had increased support for the group.

This helps to explain why although “the US-led bombing campaign has killed an estimated 20,000 Islamic State fighters”, according to senior US military official quoted in an October 2015 USA Today report, IS’s “overall force… remains about where it was when the bombing started: 20,000 to 30,000 fighters.”

Fact 9: Western airstrikes will likely contribute to the refugee crisis

In his official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria, the prime minister expressed concern that “Half the population of Syria have been forced to flee their homes” with “over 4 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries” and “a further 6.5 million people are displaced inside the country”.

However, in November 2015 a group of Middle East specialists from the University of Oxford and the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) urged the government to reflect on whether the UK joining the air campaign in Syria will “impact on the refugee crisis.” Neil Quilliam, the acting head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, was blunter in his warning, noting that “there is a significant risk that, by increasing the violence through airstrikes, the UK will further contribute to the flow of refugees from Syria”. As was Melanie Ward, the Associate Director at the International Rescue Committee, who said an upsurge in air strikes in Syria “inevitably risks” an increase in people fleeing the conflict.

Fact 10: The Government’s claim that there are 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels willing to work with the West is completely bogus

According to the prime minister’s official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria “there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.”

The Guardian reported that this claim “prompted an awkward stand-off” in the Commons Defence Committee, with the Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff refusing to provide a breakdown of which groups made up the 70,000 figure. Pressed by committee chair Julian Lewis MP to identify the groups, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon MP replied feebly: “We will certainly reflect on that.” With pressure mounting The Times revealed the Ministry of Defence had warned the prime minister against claiming there were 70,000 moderate rebels ready to fight IS, fearing it would echo Tony Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’.

After travelling to Cairo, Amman and Beirut as a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi argued that the government figure of 70,000 “must be treated with caution.” According to the military experts she met while on the official trip, there would be a struggle to find 20,000, she said.

Cockburn believes the existence of 70,000 moderate Syrian rebels willing to work with the West in fighting IS “is very debatable”. David Wearing, a Lecturer and Researcher on the Middle East at SOAS agrees, calling it “a completely nonsense number”. Professor Joshua Landis, the Director of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is also dismissive, as is Aymenn al-Tamimi, a Fellow at the Middle East Forum and specialist on the Syrian insurgency. Tamimi, according to Cockburn, warns that rebel groups “commonly exaggerate their numbers, are very fragmented and have failed to unite, despite years of war.” Furthermore he notes that the rebel groups often pretend to the outside world to be more moderate than they actually are.

Book review. Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement by Finn MacKay

Book review. Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement by Finn MacKay
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 December 2015

Coming out of her PhD thesis on the Reclaim The Night marches, Finn Mackay’s first book skilfully combines an analysis of grassroots feminist activism with a broader look at feminist history in the UK.

Based on 25 in-depth interviews, 100 online questionnaires and archival research Mackay, a Lecturer in Sociology at the University of the West of England aswell as an activist, provides a concise guide to the faultlines of contemporary feminism. So if you are unsure what “intersectionality” refers to, or want to know why people keep referring to “cis” or how people “perform their gender”, then this is the book for you.

As the title suggests, Mackay’s particular interest is Radical Feminism, which she argues has four main features that distinguish it from other forms of feminism: an awareness and focus on patriarchy; the promotion of women-only space and women-centred organising; the realisation that male violence against women is the keystone of women’s oppression; and an expansion of the definition of ‘male violence’ to include the institutions of pornography and prostitution.

Despite her clear bias for this school of thought, Mackay treats other branches of feminism with respect and fairness. The only serious false step for me is her treatment of prostitution, where her support for the ‘Swedish model’ – the criminalisation of clients and the decriminalisation of those selling sex – leads her to omit important sources and arguments. For example, she argues that “it can be enlightening… to study the local newspapers of towns and cities in all countries where brothels have been legalised to see what is happening on the ground.” This is undoubtedly correct but it’s surely also enlightening to study what respected international organisations such as the World Health Organisation, Anti-Slavery International and the UN Global Commission on HIV and the Law have to say on the subject (all support decriminalisation and all go unmentioned by Mackay). In addition, she never engages with the argument for unionisation among prostitutes to make their work safer. The omission is especially odd considering that Mackay goes on to compare prostitution to sweatshop labour in terms of the very limited level of agency and choice individual women usually have in prostitution.

A little more dry and academic than recent feminist bestsellers like The Equality Illusion and Laura Bates’s Everyday Sexism, Radical Feminism is nevertheless a much-needed overview of what is effectively hidden “herstory”. Particularly impressive is the penultimate chapter, where Mackay lets loose on how feminists can work, both inside and outside of the male-dominated establishment, for a fairer and more just society.

As the writer Joan Smith once noted, “Feminism is one of the great human rights movements” in history. Mackay no doubt agrees, and ends her book by noting women’s rights have not been kindly given by those in power. “Everything that we take advantage of today, everything that we see as basic are in fact rights that were hard won, and they were won for us by the feminists who have gone before”.

Radical Feminism: Feminist Activism in Movement is published by Palgrave Macmillan, priced £14.99.

Does arming the Kurds mean the West is supporting forces committing war crimes?

Does arming the Kurds mean the West is supporting forces committing war crimes?
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
29 November 2015

In the sometimes hysterical political debate that has happened since the Paris terrorist attacks, a strange consensus has coalesced around how the UK should respond to the rise of Islamic State.

With the Kurds garnering a great deal of sympathy in the West since the 1991 Gulf War, prominent progressive commentators opposed to direct UK military intervention in Syria agree that we should be “systematically arming” the Kurdish militia, as Labour leftist Owen Jones forcefully argued on a recent edition of BBC Sunday Morning Live. Similarly, last year Aljazeera presenter Mehdi Hasan wrote that “Progressives need to get behind the Kurds”. Ditto George Galloway. The Tory Government agrees, and has been training and arming Kurdish forces in Iraq since 2014.

The respected human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is another supporter of arming the Kurds, recently arguing a “successful strategy might be to empower” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq – both of which have been fighting Islamic State.

However, in October 2015 Amnesty International released a report that found “evidence of alarming abuses, including eyewitness accounts and satellite images, detailing the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages” in areas of northern Syria under the control of the Syrian Kurdish political party PYD (the political party of the YPG). “By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the [PYD-controlled] Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes,” Lama Fakih, a Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International, noted.

I challenged Tatchell on Twitter, asking why he was urging support for groups that were committing war crimes, linking to the Amnesty International report. His reply? “This action was wrong but exceptional & untypical of YPG. Overall, they have a good record of protecting civilians.”

“Exceptional & untypical” is certainly one way to describe what Amnesty International call “the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians” from atleast eight villages. Reporting from the same area in July 2015, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn explained the conflict “has many aspects of an ethnic war: the Kurds are driving out Sunni Arabs, whom they accuse of being Islamic State supporters.” In June 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 107-page report on the human rights situation in PYD-run enclaves in Syria. According to HRW there are arbitrary arrests of the PYD’s political opponents, abuses in detention, the use of child soldiers and excessive force was used to quell political protests.

A similar picture emerges of the Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq. A February 2015 report by Human Rights Watch highlighted how “Kurdish forces have confined thousands of Arabs in ‘security zones’ in areas of northern Iraq that they have captured since August 2014” from Islamic State. In addition, “Kurdish forces for months barred Arabs displaced by fighting from returning to their homes… while permitting Kurds to return to those areas and even to move into homes of Arabs who fled.” Local Kurds told HRW that Kurdish forces had destroyed dozens of Arab homes. One European diplomat with familiarity of the areas under Kurdish control explained there was “deliberate, systematic destruction of Sunni Arab property” by the Peshmerga. “It’s not just collective punishment for perceived support. It’s wholesale ethnic cleansing.”

Another recent report for the Middle East Eye describes a recent Dutch television documentary that filmed a commander of the Kurdish People’s Defence Force in Iraq saying that his forces did not take any prisoners. “Not in my forces, nowhere actually. Let’s be honest – simply nowhere. We don’t want prisoners.” (Unsurprisingly, the Kurdish authorities in Syria and Iraq have denied the claims made by the documentary and the reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch).

All this is not to say that, all things considered, arming the Kurds might not be the least worst realistic option available to Western governments and publics interested in defeating Islamic State. However, when deciding on what action, if any, to take in Syria and Iraq, it is essential the general population has an accurate understanding of what is happening in these conflicts, and a realistic picture of those we are supporting or plan to support. The prominent progressives named above have not told their readers the truth about the Kurdish forces they are urging the West to arm. Furthermore, it is likely that the defacto ethnic cleansing the Kurdish forces are reported to have carried out in Syria and Iraq is likely to have been counterproductive, pushing local populations into the arms of the Islamic State or other forces they feel can protect them.

“The charges also raise a complex question for the countries that train and equip Kurdish forces”, journalist Sara Elizabeth Williams notes in her Foreign Policy article about the abuses carried out by Kurdish forces in Iraq. “Can they continue to supply military aid if their weapons are used to commit what experts say amount to war crimes?”

The media and public intellectuals: Fred Halliday vs Noam Chomsky

The media and public intellectuals: Fred Halliday vs Noam Chomsky
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
27 November 2015

Compare and contrast the different responses by the media and academia to two of the most prominent public intellectuals who have focussed on the Middle East – Professor Fred Halliday, who died in 2010, and Professor Noam Chomsky.

As Al-Akhbar newspaper notes, Halliday, a Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science for 20 years, “received wide acclaim in his lifetime, and after his death.” In his obituary in the Guardian his friend Professor Sami Zubaida noted: “Fred made an enormous impact in both academia and the media. He always spoke with a sure and lucid voice, backed by extensive knowledge, and knew many languages… Arabic, Persian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, French, German and Russian.” Writing in the left-leaning Nation magazine, Susie Linfield was even more effusive in her praise: “In his scholarship and research, in his outspokenness and courtesy, in the complexity of his thinking, he was the model of a public intellectual. It is Halliday’s writing – not those of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens or Tariq Ali – that can elucidate the meaning of today’s most virulent conflicts.”

In contrast, Chomsky is repeatedly smeared and attacked by the mainstream media, receiving particular ire from liberal journalists and intellectuals. Chomsky, the author of tens of books and speaker at hundreds of sold out public events, is often labelled as “controversial”, “angry”, “raving” and “simplistic”. Chomsky is keenly aware of this phenomenon, comparing the reception he receives from the largely conservative MIT faculty with his relationship with the liberal Harvard academic staff: “I get along fine with the MIT faculty, even when we disagree about everything (which is the usual case). If I show up at the Harvard faculty club, you can feel the chill settle; it’s as if Satan himself had entered the room.”

So how do Halliday and Chomsky compare in their analysis of events in the Middle East since 2001? If one accepted the media and academic consensus one would assume world events have repeatedly proved Halliday right, and Chomsky to have been consistently off the mark. However, as the American historian Howard Zinn once noted, “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

According to his obituaries in the Guardian and Independent, Halliday supported the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. These invasions and subsequent occupations are now widely understood to have been complete disasters – for Afghans and Iraqis, for US and British troops, for the threat of terrorism in the west and for the cohesion and stability of the whole Middle East. The 2003 Iraq invasion breached international law, weakened the UN, and led to US and UK troops committing war crimes and torturing the local people. Hundreds of thousands of Afghans and Iraqis died because of the invasions, with many more wounded. Over four million Iraqis were forced from their home. Afghanistan continues to be one of the top countries of origin for refugees today. And, as even Tony Blair recently admitted, the invasion and occupation of Iraq played a key role in the creation of Islamic State and the crisis the world is currently dealing with today.

It gets worse. If we go back before 2001 we find Halliday publicly denied the impact of (US and UK-led) UN sanctions on Iraq from 1991 to 2003. In a review of Geoff Simons’s book on economic sanctions in the Independent in 1999, Halliday rubbished “claims that Iraq still lacks the means to provide a basic supply of food”. Compare Halliday’s repetition of the US-UK governments’ line to those of Hans von Sponeck, one of the UN Humanitarian Coordinators for Iraq during the sanctions regime. “At no time during the years of comprehensive economic sanctions were there adequate resources to meet minimum needs for human physical or mental survival either before, or during, the Oil-For-Food Programme”, von Sponeck notes in his 2006 book A Different Kind of War.

Denis Halliday, the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq prior to von Sponeck, resigned in protest in 1998, noting the sanctions were causing the deaths of up to 5,000 children a month: “We are in the process of destroying an entire society. It is as simple and terrifying as that. It is illegal and immoral.” Halliday later explained: “I was instructed to implement a policy that satisfies the definition of genocide — a deliberate policy that has effectively killed well over a million individuals, children and adults.” Von Sponeck himself resigned in protest two years later, asking in his resignation letter, “How long should the civilian population of Iraq be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?” Later he told journalist John Pilger: “I have not in the past wanted to use the word genocide, but now it is unavoidable.”

For a man who professed a deep admiration for the people and cultures of the Middle East, Halliday repeatedly supported US-UK government policies that caused and continue to cause untold misery for the people of the region. In contrast Chomsky was arguably the foremost critic of the US and UK invasions and occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, in addition to being a key voice in drawing attention to the horrifying effects of UN sanctions on Iraq. So, in summary, the media and intellectual elite continue to fete a man who supported Western policies that decimated the Middle East and killed hundreds of thousands of people, while they have attempted to marginalise arguably the foremost critic of these destructive and criminal actions.

What is going on here?

Chomsky himself has much to say on the subject, telling Pilger in 1992 that “The intellectual tradition is one of servility to power, and if I didn’t betray it I’d be ashamed of myself.” Mark Curtis, a British historian of UK foreign policy and former Research Fellow at Chatham House, broadly agrees, noting “British academics are generally responsible for keeping students and the public in ignorance about this country’s real role in the world.” On the topic of sanctions on Iraq, Eric Herring, Professor of World Politics at the University of Bristol, notes that the record of British academics has been shameful: “The sanctions on Iraq illustrate the fact that the immiseration of most of a society and causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of its citizens can get hidden right out in the open (the facts are there for anyone who cares to consult them), with barely a peep from academics as well as journalists”. Just three articles were published in British International Relations journals during the sanctions regime, Herring notes (Herring wrote one of them and commissioned the second).

What explains the timidity of most intellectuals? A number of factors, of course, including how one progresses through the education system (Chomsky: “There’s a filtering system, that starts in kindergarten, and goes all the way through, and it’s not going to work 100 percent but it’s pretty effective. It selects for obedience, and subordination”), and the social class of intellectuals and their attendant social and ideological ties to established power. Those whose work and politics fit within the dominant ideology will usually gain the respect of their peers and may even be courted by the media. And while there is no early morning knock on the door for those independent-minded academics in the west who expose the lies told by those in power, there are still real consequences for stepping out of line. You may be overlooked for promotion, your job may be under threat, publishing work may become more difficult, funding opportunities may dry up, you may receive a lot of flak from the establishment and you may be ostracised by colleagues.

Obviously criticism of western foreign policy does take place – is positively encouraged – but this is usually “within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.” For example, beyond his support for the aggressive US-UK invasion of Iraq, Halliday inadvertently repeated the US-UK government’s framing of the war when he argued “the American approach that you can suddenly install a democracy” is “nonsense” at the 2004 Labour Party conference. Chomsky, on the other hand, distinguishes between government’s “declarations of benign intent” and the real reasons for the invasion: control of Iraq’s energy resources. Indeed fully 1 percent of Baghdad residents in an October 2003 Gallup poll agreed with Halliday that establishing democracy was the main intention of the US invasion, while 43 percent said the invasion’s principal objective was Iraq’s oil reserves. Similarly a 2003 YouGov poll of the British public found that just 5 percent of respondents thought the US and UK’s primary motivation was “to bring freedom and democracy to Iraq” (the most popular answer to a question asking why the US and UK wanted to invade Iraq was also “to secure and control oil supplies”). In reality the US and UK “don’t want democracies in the Arab world”, Chomsky explains. “If Arab public opinion had any influence on policy, the US and Britain had been tossed out of the Middle East. That’s why they are terrified of democracies in the region.”

All this is not to dismiss Halliday’s undoubted expertise and experience on the Middle East and the knowledge he has passed onto thousands of students and readers of his work. But considering just how wrong he was on Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq and Iraqi sanctions surely we need to ask some hard questions of Halliday and our dominant understanding of education, expertise and intellectuals?

“There is in orthodox thinking a great dependence on experts”, notes Zinn in his 1990 book Passionate Declarations: Essays On War And Justice, explaining there are two false assumptions often made about experts. “One is that they see more clearly and think more intelligently than ordinary citizens. Sometimes they do, sometimes not. The other assumption is that these experts have the same interests as ordinary citizens, want the same things, hold the same values, and, therefore, can be trusted to make decisions for us all.” Our dependence on “great thinkers” and “experts” is, Zinn argues, “a violation of the spirit of democracy.”

Chomsky has repeatedly rejected attempts by others to lionise him. Rather than look to leaders and the intellectuals for wisdom and guidance, to make progressive social change Chomsky argues individuals should educate themselves, undertaking a course of intellectual self-defence through popular movements. With the Middle East in flames, the UK government champing at the bit to bomb Syria and the media in “full propaganda mode” the need for the general public to be informed and active is as great as it has ever been.