Monthly Archives: January 2016

Countering Peter Tatchell’s pro-war anti-war arguments on Syria

Countering Peter Tatchell’s pro-war anti-war arguments on Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
15 January 2016

I have a lot of respect for Peter Tatchell’s principled and extensive human rights activism. However, when it comes to Syria many of his positions seem to be confused and counterproductive – and arguably pro-Western military intervention, even if he doesn’t realise this himself. Some of his recent criticisms of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC or STW) have also been illogical (though, of course, I oppose him being manhandled at the recent STWC protest). As Interventions Watch blog has noted, Tatchell is “essentially agitating for military intervention in Syria, while claiming the mantle of the anti-war movement, and smearing the actual one”. Therefore, like Interventions Watch (who I heavily cite in this blog), I think it is important to counter his assertions.

I set out his arguments and some basic responses below.

Tatchell, Twitter, 13 December 2015: “STW refuses to organise or support demos against bombing by Assad & Russia and against Iran & Hezbollah intervention”

As a British citizen I share responsibility for the actions of the UK government and its allies. This is because I pay my taxes and, more importantly, have immeasurably more power to influence UK government policy than I do the Russian or Syrian governments, who do not represent me in anyway and for whose actions I have no control over. As Noam Chomsky has noted: “It’s a very simple ethical point: you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions, you’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.”

The same, I would argue, goes for anti-war movements around the world – their primary concern should be the actions of their own governments. This is especially true when your government is the closest ally of the most powerful nation on earth, and is itself one of the major players on the world stage.

Tatchell goes one further, castigating STWC for not protesting against ISIS (Islamic State). Of course people should be free to demonstrate against ISIS in the UK but I can’t think of a more wasteful use of activist energy when you consider ISIS is despised by all of the UK media (see Andrew Neil’s responseto the Paris attack on the supposedly neutral BBC), all political parties and 99 percent of the general public. Who, then, is a protest against ISIS in the UK supposed to influence and persuade?

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “John Rees of Stop The War says I was at its event last night with people urging UK bombing of Syria. Photo shows lie”

In fact video footage from the relatively small demonstration against Jeremy Corbyn attending the STWC dinner show that if anyone is lying it is Tatchell, with one banner reading “Thanks to Britain for the airstrikes”.

More broadly, at the demonstration Tatchell stood next to journalist James Bloodworth, who is a supporter of Western military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a defender of US drone strikes in the region – actions which, of course, have led to hundreds of civilian deaths and likely energised extremist groups. Bloodworth also supports military action against ISIS in Iraq. Tatchell claims Bloodworth doesn’t support drone strikes.

Tatchell, Twitter, 6 October 2015: “A UN No-Fly-Zone & civilian safe havens would stop Assad killing innocents, deescalate conflict & save lives”

We need to be clear what a no-fly zone is. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander and Head of US European Command: “I know it sounds stark, but what I always tell people when they talk to me about a no-fly zone is… it’s basically to start a war with that country because you are going to have to go in and kinetically take out their air defense capability”.

General Carter Ham, the head of AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) during the 2011 Libyan intervention: “We should make no bones about it. It first entails killing a lot of people and destroying the Syrian air defenses and those people who are manning those systems. And then it entails destroying the Syrian air force, preferably on the ground, in the air if necessary. This is a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties and increased risk to our own personnel”.

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “Give the Syrian democratic forces anti-aircraft missiles. That’s the way to create a no-bomb zone without bombing” and “Kurds need heavy artillery, anti-tank & anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS. More effective than bombing”

These tweets echoes an article Tatchell recently published in which he argued 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.

Tatchell’s support for arming sections of the violent resistance to the Assad government and ISIS is opposed by a plethora of NGOs, human rights organisations and expert testimony (I understand this list is very long but I think it’s important to show just how out of step Tatchell is with organisations such as the United Nations, Oxfam and Amnesty International):

– “It is essential to stem the flow of arms pouring into the country. It is irresponsible for foreign powers and groups to give continued military support to parties in Syria that are committing atrocities and flagrantly violating international principles of human rights and international law. I urge the Security Council to impose an arms embargo.” – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 20 June 2015

– “The ongoing provision of arms to the Syrian government and to its opponents feeds additional violence. Any further militarization of the conflict must be avoided at all costs.” – Navi Pillay, UN human rights chief, 2 July 2012

– “The threat of arming the rebels is unlikely to convince Assad to change his stance. Every time the rebels have made gains, the regime has been sent a vast supply of arms, financial support and even fighters from its key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah… Arming the rebels is unlikely to strengthen the so-called moderates either.” – Dr Christopher Phillips, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, 28 May 2013

– “Western arming of rebels is ill-advised given its likely limited impact on the ground, encouragement of escalation and maximalism, and the inability to guarantee in whose hands weapons will end up.” – Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy, European Council on Foreign Relations, 24 May 2013

– “Arming rebel and opposition forces will have unforeseen long-term consequences for Syria and the region and will not assist in finding a non-military solution to this terrible situation.” – Campaign Against Arms Trade, 29 May 2013

– “Sending arms is unlikely to provide a solution”. – David Owen, former UK Foreign Secretary and former EU Co-Chair of the peace negotiations in the former Yugoslavia, 4 May 2013

–“Syria is already awash in weapons that will be circulating in the area for years to come. Funneling more arms to the opposition would fuel their brutal battle tactics, intensify the war, and further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.” – Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organisation, 9 May 2013

– “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths, more long-term damage to infrastructure and the economy, and greater poverty in Syria. Instead, the United States and international community should focus on increasing diplomatic outreach, demonstrating to all sides the imperative of reaching a political solution.” – Oxfam America, 1 May 2013

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 militia). “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. When I raised the report with Tatchell, he replied: “This action was wrong but exceptional & untypical of YPG. Overall, they have a good record of protecting civilians”.

So, to summarise, we have the strange phenomenon of a self-professed anti-imperialist, anti-war, human rights activist urging the West to act in ways that would, according to experts and respected human rights organisations, increase the level of violence, prolong the war, and would lead to the West arming groups that have carried out actions that amount to war crimes, according to Amnesty International.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that in calling for the arming of rebel groups in Syria, 2015 Peter Tatchell is opposed by 2013 Peter Tatchell, who carried a placard with the slogan “UN arms embargo” at an anti-war demonstration. It also contradicts the person standing a few feet from Tatchell at the protest against Corbyn attending the Stop the War dinner who is holding a placard that also calls for a “UN arms embargo”.)

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “Kurds need… anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS. More effective than bombing”

As ISIS doesn’t have an airforce, I tweeted Tatchell asking him why the Kurds need anti-aircraft missiles. His response? “ISIS may capture helicopters. Democratic Syrians need anti-aircraft missiles to defend against Assads bombing”.

So, according to Tatchell, we should provide the Kurds with anti-aircraft missiles in the unlikely event ISIS capture and are able to run and pilot attack helicopters. Attack helicopters which Tatchell presumably thinks ISIS will be able to fly freely despite the US, Russian, UK and French aircraft dominating the airspace over significant part of Syria.

ISIS: just a murderous death cult?

ISIS: just a murderous death cult?
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
14 January 2016

The language and framing we use to speak about an issue can either illuminate and help to explain or it can obfuscate and limit our understanding, and thus keep possible solutions out of reach.

Driven by the media’s McCarthy-style witch hunt of anyone who does not publicly denounce ISIS in the strongest terms humanly possible, politicians and commentators have fallen into the dangerous habit of simplistically defining and dismissing ISIS. They are an “evil death cult”, the Prime Minister told parliament in December 2015. Following her leader’s example, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan called them a “murderous death cult” on BBC Question Time. Not to be outdone the neutral BBC’s Andrew Neil named them “A bunch of loser jihadists” and “Islamist scumbags” carrying out “Beheading, crucifixions, amputations, slavery, mass murder, medieval squalor… a death cult barbarity that would shame the Middle Ages”. The Left has scarcely been better. Appearing on the BBC’s Sunday Politics left-wing writer Owen Jones stated ISIS “is a murderous death cult… that attracts these pathetic, murdering losers”. Challenged on how we should deal with the group, Jones explained “Obviously there is no prospect, ever, of negotiating with this murderous death cult. They don’t want to negotiate, they have an apocalyptic vision of the world which they wish to satisfy.”

These statements certainly describe one, very public, side of ISIS. However, as the retired American General Stanley McChrystal told The Guardian, “If the west see ISIS as an almost stereotypical band of psychopathic killers, we risk dramatically underestimating them.” Charlie Winter, a senior researcher focussing on ISIS at Georgia State University concurs, explaining “Far from being an army of irrational, bloodthirsty fanatics, IS is a deeply calculating political organisation with an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure.”

Writing about ISIS’s attempted state-building, Charles Lister, author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency, notes ISIS’s “standard governance practice” includes “establishing public welfare programs, offering countless forms of social service, commercial good quality inspections, tax offices, transport companies and much more.” In a 2014 article titled ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has a Consumer Protection Office’ Aaron Zelin, a Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, comments the group’s “sophisticated bureaucracy” includes a court system and a roving police force, along with services such as an electricity department, a post office, road repairs, religious schools and healthcare. “ISIS helps run bread factories and provides fruit and vegetables to many families”, Zelin notes. “In Raqqa, ISIS has established a food kitchen to feed the needy and an Office for Orphans to help pair them with families” aswell as conducting polio-vaccination campaigns. Apparently ISIS have set up a Complaints Office (complete with a suggestions boxes) in an attempt to weed out corruption. And last week The Guardian reported on the organisation’s Research and Development Centre run by technicians and scientists and its Communications team, which is staffed by up to 100 people and has “a schedule and workload that could rival a television network.”

Rather than wilfully play into the media’s seedy little game of feigned moral outrage, politicians and commentators need to face up to some very inconvenient facts. According to the EU Commissioner for Justice over 5,000 Europeans have travelled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Numerous reports have noted that many Sunnis have chosen to live under ISIS control rather than the Iraqi Government. According to Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, there is evidence of refugee flows into ISIS controlled territory. Though far from easy, there are positive steps that could be taken in response. To stop ISIS recruiting in the West we need to stop publicly labelling the people who join them “pathetic, murdering losers” and engage and deal with the complex personal, social, economic and political factors that lead them to turn to ISIS in the first place. To reduce ISIS’s power and control in Iraq we need to consider why much of the Sunni population is so wary of the Iraqi Government forces. And to reduce ISIS’s authority in Syria we need to reduce the violence and chaos that the group exploits and push for an end to the war as soon as possible.

The problem is this: all these possible solutions involve coming to terms with our own reprehensible role in the crisis. The West’s military interventions in the Middle East have has undoubtedly played a key role in radicalising Muslims residing in the West. The West has supported the Iraqi Government while it gunned down unarmed Sunni demonstrators, barrel bombed Sunni-dominated areas and let Shia militias run wild, carrying out widespread war crimes. And in Syria the West has helped to escalate the conflict and wrecked attempts at negotiation a peaceful solution to the conflict. So aswell as being deeply unhelpful when it comes to defeating ISIS, calling them “a murderous death cult” also has an important political role – of moving the spotlight away from own destructive actions.

If we are serious about helping to reduce ISIS’s power and territory, what we desperately need is a grown-up, nuanced, evidenced-based debate about the organisation and the reasons behind its growth and continued existence. To take one example, a rational approach would dismiss Owen Jones’s crude assertion that “there is no prospect, ever, of negotiating” with ISIS and ask questions about ISIS’s internal divisions and factions and its external support. Is there a more moderate or pragmatic wing of the group? How might groups or fighters that our currently fighting with or allied to ISIS be persuaded to break away? Could we negotiate with the state and non-state actors currently supporting ISIS? Would it be possible to persuade – that is negotiate with – those who plan on joining ISIS in the future?

And finally we need to remember the simplistic and often hysterical public statements and positions the media demands politicians and commentators robotically parrot are not necessarily good for the wider world and are not helpful if we wish to reduce the terror threat to the UK and other countries.

My Guardian letter highlighting Hilary Benn’s strange turnaround on bombing Syria

I had this short letter published in the Guardian on 7 January 2016:

Has anyone got an explanation out of Hilary Benn for the interview he gave to the Independent on Sunday three weeks before his much-lauded pro-bombing speech to parliament in which the newspaper reported that the shadow foreign secretary “said that the government should drop plans for a new House of Commons vote authorising military attacks in Syria to concentrate on peace talks and providing humanitarian support for refugees”? The article went on to directly quote Mr Benn as saying the “terrible events in Paris” meant it was “even more important that we bring the Syrian civil war to an end” before considering air strikes on Isis.
Ian Sinclair
London