Monthly Archives: March 2016

Climate change: the elephant in the Arabian Gulf

Climate change: the elephant in the Arabian Gulf
by Ian Sinclair

Open Democracy
21 March 2016

Speaking to me after the December 2015 United Nations Paris Agreement on climate change, Professor Kevin Anderson, the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, noted the world is still on course for 3-4°C warming on pre-industrial levels (“and probably the upper end of that”).

In 2012 the World Bank summarised what this will look like in its suitably titled report Turn Down The Heat: Why A 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided. “The 4°C scenarios are devastating”, the foreword explained. “The inundation of coastal cities, increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates, many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter, unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics, substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions, increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones, and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.” Professor Anderson believes a 4°C world will likely be “incompatible with an organized global community”, while Naomi Klein, the author of the seminal book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, states that “climate change is an existential crisis for the human species”.

All this is frightening enough but here is the real kicker: according to the scientific consensus 75 percent of known fossil fuel reserves must be kept in the ground if we are to have any chance of stopping dangerous levels of climate change.

Which brings us to the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), who control around 30 percent of the world’s crude oil reserves and over 20 percent of the world’s gas reserves, and in particular Saudi Arabia, which holds around 16 percent of the planet’s oil reserves.

According to numerous NGOs and newspaper reports, Saudi Arabia, along with the Arab Group of countries it unofficially leads, worked to sabotage a robust deal in Paris, attempting to water down temperature limits and remove mention of human rights from parts of the agreement.

Naming Saudi Arabia “Fossil of the Day”, the Climate Action Network noted “ “the Saudi’s are trying to torpedo three years of hard science, commissioned by governments, that clearly shows 2 degrees warming is too much for vulnerable communities around the world.” Sven Harmeling, CARE International’s climate change advocacy coordinator, was equally critical: “Saudi Arabia is blocking these very substantive discussions going forward and [from] allowing ministers to understand what’s going forward.” The Guardian reported that Washington lobbyists representing Saudi Arabia and Kuwait worked to slow down and muddy the negotiation process, attempting to link climate aid for small island nations that could disappear completely under rising seas to compensation packages for oil producers facing declining revenues.

A similar dynamic was in evidence at the UN climate talks in Bonn in September 2015. “There is no doubt that Saudi Arabia’s position is harmful”, noted Jens Mattias from Greenpeace. “We need strong long-term goals and an agreement to phase out fossil fuels – Saudi Arabia is fighting against this tooth-and-nail. And they have a lot of influence, especially on other oil-producing countries.”

From a narrow short-term perspective there are, of course, many self-interested reasons why Saudi Arabia and other GCC nations would want to block meaningful action on climate change. The vast majority of their revenues comes from oil and gas, and while ‘economic diversification’ is endlessly debated throughout the GCC, there is little prospect of weaning their economies off the black gold anytime soon.

“Oil revenues allow the rulers of countries like Saudi Arabia to pay out generously on welfare and subsidies, which underscores their mandate to rule, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring”, notes German newspaper Deutsche Welle. Dr Jim Krane, a researcher on energy and the GCC at Rice University’s Baker Institute, makes plain just how high the stakes are for GCC rulers: “Telling Saudi Arabia it has to leave its oil in ground is tantamount to saying we support a revolution in your country”.

So, to summarize, the GCC’s rulers need to keep extracting fossil fuels to ensure their own survival, just as the planet and humanity requires the GCC and other governments to stop extracting fossil fuels for their own survival. It is this irreconcilable clash of interests that led journalist Pari Trivedi to report from the Paris climate talks that Saudi Arabia “has been negotiating in a manner that refutes any consideration for the wellbeing of humankind”.

The Gulf itself will be hit particularly hard by a rise in global temperatures, leading to significantly hotter and dryer conditions in the region, with increasing freshwater shortages contributing to security threats and enlarged refugee flows. Yemen’s water problems are well understood. Less well known is the link between climate change-related drought and the conflict in Syria. Reviewing a study in the journal Nature Climate Change, The Guardian explains the GCC “will suffer heatwaves beyond the limit of human survival if climate change is unchecked”. Kicking in after 2070, the research shows 45°C would become the normal summer maximum in Gulf cities, with 60°C seen in places like Kuwait during some years.

As the author Robert Tressell wrote in his classic book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, “Every man who is not helping to bring about a better state of affairs for the future is helping to perpetuate the present misery and is therefore the enemy of his own children. There is no such thing as being neutral: we must either help or hinder.”

We in the West should not duck our own culpability. Ever since the late 1980s when the world began to understand the dangers of climate change, the West has been intimately involved in this dangerous ecological poker game. First, it is the affluent, industrialised societies that require significant amounts of the world’s fossil fuels to maintain our unsustainable consumer-based lifestyles. And second, the West – through military intervention, arms deals, diplomatic support and trade – plays a crucial role in protecting and maintaining the Gulf monarchies in power.

Deutsche Welle notes that many believe oil’s “greatest value” to Saudi Arabia “is as a strategic weapon”, allowing it to play an oversized role in the international arena. And this is where the politics of climate change should be of great interest to anyone concerned about the West’s support for the most fundamentalist government on earth. For example, a significant shift to renewables in the UK would dramatically reduce the nation’s reliance on oil coming from the Middle East and the Gulf, which would, in turn, dramatically reduce the power of Saudi Arabia to influence the UK’s foreign and domestic politics. Just imagine: no more flags flying at half-mast; no more Serious Fraud Office investigations prematurely closed down; no more dodgy arms sales; no more enabling of the on-going humanitarian crisis in Yemen.

Climate change, the strength of the environmental movement in the West, the arms trade, the UK’s energy make-up, political change in Saudi Arabia, Western foreign policy – everything is connected. And it is no exaggeration to say the very future of humanity depends on how quickly the populations and leaders in the West and the GCC come to understand these links and the threat to their own and the planet’s well-being – and how quickly they act.

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Benghazi: the real story

Benghazi: the real story
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 March 2016

Hollywood, as lecturer Matthew Alford explains in his 2010 book Reel Power, “routinely promotes the dubious notion that the United States is a benevolent force in world affairs.”

Thus Michael Bay’s $50 million recent film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi tells the story of the September 11 2012 attack on the US consulate in Libya, which killed the US ambassador and three of his colleagues.

As with movies such as Black Hawk Down (2001) and Lone Survivor (2013) the audience watches as a small band of brave US servicemen heroically fight back against hundreds of faceless Arabs, with no apparent motive other than a hatred of Westerners.

13 Hours is clear about the benevolent intent of the US in Libya, with the initial credits explaining the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had an annex close to the US consulate, where operatives gathered intelligence to try their best to get weapons taken off the black market.

In an extensive February 2016 investigation into the US intervention in Libya, the New York Times repeats this official narrative, explaining the US “struggled against weapons proliferation” after Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi had been overthrown and killed.

However, a number of reports show there is far more to the story than the US government, 13 Hours and the New York Times would have us believe.

In August 2013 CNN reported that dozens of CIA operatives had been on the ground in Benghazi and that “the agency is going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing remains a secret.”

According to one source quoted by CNN, the CIA has been involved in an unprecedented attempt to keep the spy agency’s Benghazi secrets from ever leaking out. All of which begs an obvious question: if the CIA were simply attempting to stop weapons proliferation in Libya, why would this need to be covered up?

Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh’s reporting on US actions in Libya may provide the answer. According to an article he published in the London Review of Books in April 2014, the CIA, with the assistance of Britain’s MI6, set up a “rat line” to funnel weapons and ammunition from Libya to Syria via southern Turkey. “The consulate’s only mission was to provide cover for the moving of arms,” says a former intelligence official quoted by Hersh.

Citing a classified annex to a US Senate intelligence committee report, Hersh notes the funding for the weapons transfers came from US allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

A formerly classified October 2012 US Defence Intelligence Agency report echoes Hersh’s discovery, noting that “during the immediate aftermath of … the downfall of the [Gadaffi] regime in October 2011 … weapons from the

former Libyan military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya, were shipped” to Syria. Importantly, the report explains the shipments ended in early September 2012 — the date the US consulate was attacked and when Hersh also says the shipments ended.

Michael Morrell, the former deputy director of the CIA, confirmed the existence of the weapons shipments in testimony to the US House intelligence committee in November 2012. However, the part of the transcript showing Morrell’s response to a question asking whether the CIA was involved in co-ordinating the weapons transfers is redacted. “Long story short: the CIA was watching closely as our allies transferred weapons to Syrian rebels,” explained the independent journalist Marcy Wheeler, summarising Morrell’s testimony and the CIA report.

So, while many of the details are fuzzy, it seems clear the US was transferring weapons from Libya to Syria or, at the very least, was fully aware its allies were doing this and did nothing. Weapons, it should be noted, that a plethora of experts and observers — from former Nato secretary-generals to the United Nations — have warned will only escalate and deepen the war in Syria.

In addition to contradicting the Establishment-promoted image of US-British power as benevolent and positive, the real story of Benghazi fatally undermines the dominant narrative that, as BBC Today programme presenter Nick Robinson recently noted, the Obama administration has had a “deep unwillingness to get engaged in” the Syrian war. Or, as well-respected think-tanker Shadi Hamid argues, US policy in Syria has been one of “defensive minimalism.” Furthermore, the Libyan-Syrian “rat line” story also highlights another inconvenient truth: Hersh notes that “many of those in Syria who ultimately received the weapons were jihadists, some of them affiliated with al-Qaida.”

If, as the independent media icon Amy Goodman has said, “the role of journalism is to go where the silences are,” then the CIA and MI6 role in Benghazi should be the first port of call for anyone looking to shine a light on the nefarious machinations of the Western powers in the Middle East.

Interview with Siân Berry, the Green Party’s mayoral candidate

Interview with Siân Berry, the Green Party’s mayoral candidate
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
14 March 2016 

As the Green Party’s candidate for the London Mayoral elections on 5 May 2016, this is second time round for Siân Berry.

She first stood for mayor in 2008, coming fourth behind Boris Johnson, Ken Livingstone and Liberal Democrat Brian Paddick – the highest place achieved by the Greens at the time. Impressively, Berry, now 41, also gained endorsements from the Observer and Independent newspapers and the Federation for Small Businesses.

Sitting down to chat to me around the corner from the Green Party’s offices in east London, Berry argues London has changed significantly in the last eight years. The Coalition and Conservative governments have created “a proper crisis” in the capital, she says. “Since 2010 the assault on ordinary people’s lives, the assault on council housing, the assault on people’s welfare benefits – the really horrible things that they’ve done really seem to target the most vulnerable people in society.”

“I think it is much more important now that we elect a campaigning mayor”, she continues. “Somebody who is going to be a real opposition to the government, who is really going to stick up for London and who isn’t going to just do whatever the government wants, and isn’t also going to be on the side of the big companies or the big developers.”

Berry also believes she has changed personally since 2008. “I’ve had a real range of different things I’ve tried and enjoyed”, she says, explaining she was part of a tech start-up, has written three books, worked for the Campaign for Better Transport and assisted with the union-run Sack Boris campaign during the 2012 mayoral race. Since 2014 she has also served as the local councillor for Highgate ward on Camden Borough Council.

She describes herself as a socialist – “a Bertrand Russell kind of socialist.”

“I’m quite utopian”, she clarifies. “I have quite a lot of trust in people. I like letting people run things for themselves. I’m not in any way authoritarian. If you look at the policies I’m putting forward for London, it’s all about having enormous faith in people to do things for themselves.”

Housing is one of the key policies the Greens are campaigning on, and Berry has an infectious, wonkish knowledge of the subject, animatedly listing a number of policies. A renter herself living in Tufnell Park, she notes rent levels “are a serious problem because even if people want to buy they have to rent first… and many people are using more than half their income to pay their rent.” She wants rent controls, and is also pushing for a Renter’s Union to be established. “People who privately rent are realising they need to stick together, they need to plan together, they have rights.” The union would be funded by City Hall but independent from it, she notes, and will create a central, Londonwide organisation for renters to organise and fight extortionate rents, rogue landlords and rip-off letting agents.

Along with backing the building of more council homes, supporting housing co-operatives and establishing a Community Homes Unit in City Hall, Berry opposes the government’s plans to knock down housing estates. She highlights research by Green London Assembly member Darren Johnson that found this so-called regeneration has reduced the total amount of social housing by 8,000 in the past decade. “We think it is better from a green point of view to keep the estates we have, to build on top of them, to infill, to work with the residents on how that can be done best for them.”

This housing policy would be paid, in part, by continuing the Olympic Precept (the extra tax Londoners paid to help fund the 2012 Games) and by raising Council Tax. Berry’s interest in realistically costing policies extends to transport and her proposal to completely flatten the zone structure so there is one cost for all journeys in London, like there is in New York City. “They have got my spreadsheets”, she quips, when I ask if her plans and budgets are supported by Transport for London, who has criticised the proposals put forward by Labour’s candidate Sadiq Khan.

Another significant change since 2008, I suggest to Berry, is the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader. Is she concerned this will negatively impact the Green vote in May? Berry, it turns out, is very excited by Jezza’s rise, seeing it as part of the same hopeful, democratising political forces that generated last year’s Green Party surge and the energetic Yes Campaign in Scotland. Is Khan part of the same movement? “It doesn’t feel like it”, she replies. “He feels like he is much more part of the old guard in Labour, who are a bit suspicious of the new people coming in and what they might want.”

“It really worries me that Sadiq Khan is going round saying he is going to be the most business friendly mayor ever when the mayor we currently have could not be more business friendly”, Berry says about the Member of Parliament for Tooting’s infamous interview with the Financial Times.

According to a report in Private Eye, Khan’s interest in big business also stretches to accepting over £92,000 in donations from property firms and developers since December 2014. “You can’t accuse people of anything really based on where they get donations from”, she notes, “but you’d think they wouldn’t give donations unless they thought there was an influence.”

In 2008 the Green Party recommended its voters give their second preference vote to Labour’s Ken Livingstone (the mayoral election is conducted under a Supplementary Vote system). However, Berry thinks it is unlikely the Greens will endorse Labour’s candidate this year, though the final decision will rest with London Green Party members in April. “I know Sadiq Khan is not making some people happy with some of the things he has been saying and doing. We’ve got some red lines. Like he is going round saying Gatwick Airport needs to be expanded. It is very hard for Greens to back someone who is that enthusiastic about airport expansion.”

Berry doesn’t just oppose airport expansion – one of her flagship proposals is to close City Airport in east London and use the space for new housing and businesses. Berry has also taken the time to support the thirteen Plane Stupid protestors who narrowly missed being jailed for temporarily closing a Heathrow runway in protest at the government’s expansion plans. “I support direct action at the point in which democracy has failed”, she says. “David Cameron couldn’t have made a clearer pledge not to expand Heathrow. And yet it is back on the table within a few years of him taking power. That’s very, very wrong. So they are right to do what they did, I think.” Her environmental credentials were given a further boost when Clean Air In London – which campaigns on the air pollution that research shows kills 9,500 people in the capital every year – recently scored her top out of all the candidates (Khan came fourth).

With Green membership in London quadrupling in the last four years, Berry is quietly confident she can maintain the record-breaking level of support Jenny Jones received as the Green mayoral candidate in 2012, when she finished in third place ahead of the Liberal Democrats. And as Berry is also first on the Londonwide list of Green hopefuls for the London Assembly in this election (the Greens currently have two Assembly members, both of whom are standing down), even if she doesn’t become mayor, Londoners will likely be seeing a lot more of her in the future.

The West and Syria: the corporate media vs. reality

The West and Syria: the corporate media vs. reality
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
4 March 2016

“The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”, George Orwell noted in his censored preface to his 1945 book Animal Farm. “Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban”. Orwell went onto explain that “at any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it”.

The corporate media’s ‘coverage’ of Syria adds a twist to Orwell’s dictum – inconvenient reports and facts do occasionally appear in respected newspapers and on popular news programmes but they are invariably ignored, decontextualised or not followed up on. Rather than informing the historical record, public opinion and government policy these snippets of essential information are effectively thrown down the memory hole.

Instead the public is fed a steady diet of simplistic, Western-friendly propaganda, a key strand of which is that the US has, as Channel 4 News’s Paul Mason blindly asserted in January 2016, “stood aloof from the Syrian conflict”. This deeply ingrained ignorance was taken to comical lengths when Mason’s Channel 4 News colleague Cathy Newman interviewed the former senior US State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, with both women agreeing the US had not armed the insurgency in Syria.

In the real world the US has been helping to arm the insurgency since 2012, with US officials telling the Washington Post in last year that the CIA’s $1bn programme had trained and equipped 10,000 rebel fighters. “From the moment the CIA operation was started, Saudi money supported it”, notes the New York Times. According to the former American Ambassador to Syria, the US “has looked the other way” while fighters it has backed have “coordinated in military operations” with the Al-Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria. The UK, of course, has obediently followed its master into the gates of hell, with the former UK Ambassador to Syria recently explaining the UK has made things worse by fuelling the conflict in Syria.

And if they are not playing down the West’s interference in Syria, journalists and their political masters are presenting Western actions as having benign, peaceful motives. For example, in his official response to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on UK military action in Syria, British Prime Minister David Cameron argued “since the start of the crisis the UK has worked for a political solution in Syria”. The Guardian’s foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall echoed this idea of the West’s “basic benevolence” in 2013 when henoted in passing that President Obama “cannot count on Russian support to fix Syria”.

Compare, this propagandistic framing with what Andrew Mitchell, the former British Secretary of State for International Development, had to say about the West’s role in the 2012 United Nations peace plans on the BBC Today Programme earlier this month:

“Kofi Annan, the very distinguished former General Secretary of the United Nations, came forward with his plan, asked by the UN General-Secretary to do so. Part of that plan was to say that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad is part of the problem here and, therefore, by definition, is part of the solution, and therefore he must be included in negotiations. And that was vetoed by the Americans and, alas, by the British Government too.”

Mitchell’s astonishing revelation is backed up by two highly respected Middle East experts. In September 2015 Avi Shlaim, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Oxford University, noted that Western insistence that Assad must step down sabotaged Annan’s efforts to set up a peace deal and forced his resignation. Professor Hugh Roberts, the former Director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, concurs, writing “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”. Indeed, the US Secretary of State himself conceded this reality when he recently noted that demanding Assad’s departure up front in the peace process was “in fact, prolonging the war.”

A quick survey of recent history shows this warmongering isn’t an unfortunate one-off but a longstanding US policy of blocking peace initiatives in times of conflict.

In 1999 the US used Serbia’s rejection of the Rambouillet Agreement to justify its 78-day bombing campaign. However, the proposed agreement included the military occupation and political control of Kosovo by NATO, and gave NATO the right to occupy of the rest of Yugoslavia. It was a document “that no sovereign country on earth would have signed”, reporter Jeremy Scahill noted.

Two years later as the US geared up to bomb and invade Afghanistan, the Taliban raised the idea of handing over Osama bin Laden if the US produced evidence of his involvement in the attack on 9/11. According to the New York Times “the White House quickly rejected the move” because “it did not ‘meet American requirements’ that Afghanistan immediately hand over the prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon”

Several months into the 2003 Iraq War, the Guardian reported that “in the few weeks before its fall, Iraq’s Ba’athist regime made a series of increasingly desperate peace offers to Washington, promising to hold elections and even to allow US troops to search for banned weapons.” Like Afghanistan, the Guardian noted “the advances were all rejected by the Bush administration, according to intermediaries involved in the talks.”

And finally, in January 2015 the Washington Times highlighted the various attempts made by the Libyan government to push for a negotiated settlement during the 2011 NATO intervention. Citing secret audio recordings between an intermediary working for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Libyan government, the newspaper noted the head of the US African Command attempted to negotiate a truce but was ordered to stand down by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s State Department. This account resonates with other reports that show how NATO ignored peace initiatives coming from the Libyan Government and the African Union.

Of course, some or perhaps all of these peace overtures may have been disingenuous and/or unworkable. However, we will never know because they were never seriously considered or explored by the West in its rush to war.

Turning back to Syria, the facts clearly show the West, by blocking the UN’s peace initiative while continuing to arm the insurgency, played a key role in prolonging and escalating a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and led to a staggering 11 million refugees.

Of course, Russia and Iran, by backing the Assad Government, have also played a central role in prolonging and escalating the war but as a British citizen whose taxes fund the British government my primary concern is the actions of the UK and its allies. As Noam Chomsky has noted “You’re responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions. You’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.”

Roberts clearly understands what the predictable consequences of the US and UK actions in Syria have been: “Western policy has been a disgrace and Britain’s contribution to it should be a matter of national shame.”

As always, the government prefers to treat the public like mushrooms – keeping them in the dark and feeding them bullshit. And with our supposedly crusading, disputatious, stroppy and difficult fourth estate unable or unwilling to report basic facts and to connect some very simple dots, what chance does the general public have of ever gaining even a basic understanding of what the West is doing in Syria?