Monthly Archives: May 2017

No, the US has not made ‘well-meaning efforts to broker peace’ in Syria

No, the US has not made ‘well-meaning efforts to broker peace’ in Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
9 May 2017

Testifying to the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs last month, the highly-respected Syria analyst Charles Lister asserted the Obama Administration had made “repeated, well-meaning efforts to broker peace” in Syria. This belief in the “basic benevolence” of the US underpins much of the mainstream commentary on the ongoing conflict. For example, in 2013 the Guardian’s foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall noted that Obama “cannot count on Russian support to fix Syria”.

Embarrassingly for Lister and Tisdall the historical record clearly shows that far from being a “well-meaning” broker for peace, the US (and UK) have in actual fact repeatedly blocked a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Syria.

A key date is 2 August 2012 – the day Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, resigned after failing to reach a peace deal with many of the participants in the war at talks in Geneva.

Writing in 2015, Professor Avi Shlaim, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Oxford University, provided some important context for the collapse of the talks. “British ministers [following the lead of the US] keep repeating the mantra that Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution. In truth he is a very large part of the problem but also an indispensable part of any negotiated solution”, Shlaim noted. “Western insistence on regime change in Damascus sabotaged his [Annan’s] efforts and forced him to resign.” Professor Hugh Roberts, the former Director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, agreed with Shlaim’s analysis. “Western policy has been a disgrace”, Roberts argued in the London Review of Books. “They 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.”

The West’s negative role at the 2012 Syrian peace talks has been confirmed by Andrew Mitchell, the former British Secretary of State for International Development, Chatham House’s Dr Christopher Phillips*, and veteran foreign correspondents Jonathan Steele and Patrick Cockburn. Amazingly, in 2015 former US Secretary of State John Kerry himself admitted the US demanding Assad’s departure upfront in the peace process was “in fact, prolonging the war.”

On 17 August 2012 it was announced the seasoned diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi would succeed Annan as the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria. Less than two years later Brahimi himself resigned after also failing to achieve a peaceful settlement to the fighting. “I would put a lot of blame on the outside forces – the forces, the governments and others who were supporting one side or the other. None of these countries had the interests of the Syrian people as the first priority… everybody is to blame”, Brahimi told Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan in March 2016. “The entire world. What did the Americans do? What did the French do? What did the British do?”

As Brahimi’s testimony hints at, other actors also bear a heavy responsibility for the breakdown of the talks and the continuation of the ongoing conflict, especially the Syrian Government and its backers Russia and Iran. However, as a British citizen my focus in this article is the United States, the UK’s closet ally.

In addition to playing a blocking role in the peace talks, by supplying – as Kerry told Syrian activists last year – an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the Syrian rebels and working with its regional allies to send in arms, the US has played a key role in lengthening and escalating the conflict. The Syrian specialist Patrick Seale was fully aware of “the central contradiction in US policy” in 2012: “Although it says it supports the Annan plan, it is unashamedly undermining it by helping to arms the rebels” a depressing reality many expert voices warned about in 2013, including the UN Secretary-General and two former NATO Secretary-Generals.

Frustratingly, despite this slew of first-hand testimony and expert analysis, it is Lister’s evidence-free misrepresentation of the US role that informs the popular understanding of Western involvement in Syria – which suggests we are in the midst of a huge propaganda war directed at Western publics. And even more frustratingly, it is likely to stay this way because the inconvenient facts around the US’s role in the Syrian bloodbath challenge a number of media-fuelled shibboleths: from the portrayal of Assad and Putin as the only ‘bad guys’ in the war to the oft repeated myth of US non-intervention in the conflict. Hell, if the US’s real role in Syria became better understood then people might also start asking awkward questions about other recent conflicts, such as Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011, where the US has presented itself as sincerely seeking peace when it has really been pushing for war.

In the end one particularly ugly conclusion is inescapable: if the West has been involved in blocking peace initiatives and therefore extending the fighting, it also means the West’s is partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed in the ongoing slaughter and the mammoth refugee crisis – a world away from the US being a well-meaning peace broker.

*In his 2016 book ‘The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East’ Dr Christopher Phillips notes “at the Geneva conference in summer 2012, neither the US nor Russia was willing to prioritise the prevention of conflict over their positions on Assad’s future.” (page 103)

Advertisements

Obama was always in Wall Street’s pocket – Democrats must stop taking its money

Obama was always in Wall Street’s pocket – Democrats must stop taking its money
by Ian Sinclair
International Business Times
2 May 2017

The news that Barack Obama is to be paid $400,000 to speak at a conference organised by the Wall Street firm Cantor Fitzgerald has generated headlines across the globe.

In an editorial titled ‘Don’t go chasing Wall Street cash’ the Guardian newspaper argued Obama was making “a mistake”. Taking the ginormous fee would “allow populist critics to paint him as a pawn of moneyed interests”, the liberal newspaper noted, before concluding that it would “tarnish” his presidential record.

Missing from the Guardian’s mild criticism is the inconvenient fact Obama’s national political career has always relied on Wall Street cash. Paul Street, author of two books about the first black president, notes that from his time as a US Senator Obama has been “intimately tied in with the United States’ corporate and financial ruling class.” Street continues: “Obama was rising to power with remarkable backing from Wall Street… who were not in the business of promoting politicians who sought to challenge the nation’s dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and doctrines.” The New York Daily News reported during the 2008 presidential campaign “Wall Street is investing heavily in Barack Obama” – a reality confirmed by Politifact website last year: “When it comes to Wall Street contributions, Obama broke the record in 2008”.

The 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton agreed that Obama took record amounts of money from Wall Street in 2008, though she maintained this did not stop Obama standing up to big finance and passing tough regulation.

As with many things, Clinton is very obviously wrong on this.

In the real world, against a background of popular rage directed at Wall Street following the 2008 financial crash President Obama chose to stuff his incoming administration with Wall Street insiders. Larry Summers, who as Deputy Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton played a key role in the deregulation of the finance sector that led to the 2008 financial crisis, was appointed Chief Economic Advisor. Heading the Treasury was Timothy Geithner, a protégé of Bill Clinton’s deregulation-happy Treasury Secretary and former Citigroup chairman Robert Rubin. Geithner’s Chief of Staff was Mark Patterson, a former lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, while his deputy Neal Wolin was a former chief executive for a large investment and insurance company. Unsurprisingly, Geithner and his team worked to water down the regulation of Wall Street being demanded by the American public, fighting successfully “against more severe limits on executive pay” and “tougher conditions on financial institutions”, according to the New York Times.

Meeting the US’s top thirteen financial executives in March 2009, incredibly Obama reportedly told them “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks. You guys have an acute public relations problem that’s turning into a political problem. And I want to help… I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you… I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.”

Two months later Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, explained “The finance industry has effectively captured our government”, with the “financial oligarchy… blocking essential reform.”

Thus, though there were reports of Wall Street executives very unhappy with the regulatory reforms contained in the 2010 Dodd Frank Act (which was strangled by lobbyists assisted by the White House, according to the muckraking Matt Taibbi), a 2011 Washington Post headline noted Obama was “still flush with cash [from] the financial sector”.

Why am I writing about the close relationship between a former American president and big finance when we have an unstable, racist, misogynistic ignoramus in the White House?

First, this story highlights the willful amnesia of much of the media, including supposedly more critical publications such as the Guardian. It is clear those trying to gain an accurate understanding of how the world works will struggle to do so by consuming mainstream media.

Second, the close relationship between Obama and Wall Street points to the key issue for progressives in the United States moving forward. As Adolph Reed, Jr, Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, argued in 2007, “Elected officials are only as good or as bad as the forces they feel they must respond to.” The financial sector will always use its extraordinary financial resources to influence politics in its favour. Therefore, the central task of those interested in a more humane world is to build a more formidable counterpower – which will be powerful enough to make sure a credible, socialist-minded candidate gets the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. Given that Obama’s siding with the finance sector and Clinton’s enthusiastic backing for the multinational-benefiting North American Free Trade Agreement likely boosted support for Trump among the American public, a neoliberal, ‘pragmatic’ candidate who is unable or unwilling to confront Wall Street is simply no longer an option.

Working to stop the war in Yemen: Interview with peace activist Sam Walton

Working to stop the war in Yemen: Interview with peace activist Sam Walton
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
11 April 2017

On 3 April 2017 Sam Walton made headlines when he attempted to carry out a citizen’s arrest of Saudi Arabian Major General Ahmed al-Asiri in London.

Walton, a British Quaker activist, explained the reasoning behind his actions to Ian Sinclair.

Ian Sinclair: Why did you attempt a citizen’s arrest of Major General Ahmed al-Asiri?

Sam Walton: Al-Asiri is a senior adviser and spokesperson for a regime that routinely carries out executions, locks up journalists and tortures dissenters. It’s a regime that would never allow the kind of protest I took part in, let alone allow the publication of an article like this.

Al-Asiri is the frontman for the Saudi military and a spokesperson for the terrible bombardment of Yemen. The bombing has lasted for over two years now, destroying vital infrastructure and killing thousands of civilians. In that time, Saudi forces have flouted international humanitarian law and shown a total contempt for human rights.

Last year, a leaked UN expert panel report into the war reported widespread and systematic attacks on civilian targets, as well as starvation being used as a weapon of war. The punishment has been indiscriminate. One month after the UN report, al-Asiri told Reuters, “Now our rules of engagement are: you are close to the border, you are killed.”

Saudi forces haven’t just shown a total disregard for international law and human rights, but also for the truth. In November 2016 al-Asiri told ITV that Saudi forces had not been using cluster bombs in Yemen, only for the UK parliament to later admit that they had.

It’s a sign of how warped Whitehall’s priorities are when a man like al-Asiri, a senior adviser to one of the most brutal and oppressive regimes in the world, can be welcomed and invited to meet with MPs and whitewash his crimes to prestigious think-tanks. If real justice is to be done, then governments like the UK’s need to stop putting arms sales ahead of human rights and call for people like al-Asiri to be arrested and investigated for war crimes.

IS: Al-Asiri was in London when you tried to arrest him. Does the UK bear some responsibility for Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen?

SW: The UK’s complicity in the destruction has been so absolute that it only made me more determined to stop the General. How could I ignore him when the government of the country I live in has offered political and military support for the appalling war that he and his colleagues have waged?

In fact, it’s not just been supportive – it’s played an utterly central role. Data compiled by Campaign Against Arms Trade shows that the UK has licensed over £3bn worth of arms to the Saudi regime since the bombing began. These include many of the fighter jets flying over Yemen and the bombs falling from the sky.

The impact of the bombing has been devastating. There are already 17 million people in Yemen that are food insecure and need humanitarian intervention – how much worse does it have to get before the UK finally does the right thing and stops fuelling their suffering?

I’ve been frustrated for a long time about this, and have tried pretty much everything to stop my country arming Saudi Arabia. That’s why a couple of months ago I broke into BAE’s Warton base to try and physically disarm the Saudi warplanes we are making and servicing that are being used in crimes against humanity in Yemen.

IS: Can you talk a little about the planning and preparation that went into the action?

SW: There was barely any planning at all – we had very little notice of where al-Asiri was going to be or when. It was simply a group of people with a high level of trust using our different expertise and skills to make this happen.

IS: Some people dismiss activism as something that doesn’t make a difference, arguing that “nothing ever changes”. However, your action seems to have made a big impact already?

SW: As I’m sure you’ve seen on the internet, some people are wrong.

The Saudis have a contempt for democracy and get very upset by any form of protest against them. It’s frankly pathetic that the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to grovel an apology for the incident. He should have defended our democratic protest and demanded an apology for al-Asiri’s guards interrupting the citizen’s arrest. His behaviour does show our government’s dedication to pursuing arms sales at the expense of the rule of law, human rights and ultimately the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Yemen right now – driven primarily by a Saudi bombardment using British weapons. What is amusing is that we wouldn’t have known about Boris’ apology if the Saudi’s weren’t so thin skinned and press released it in a desperate attempt to save face.

We’ve helped to trigger a very serious legal process – the Metropolitan Police’s War Crimes Unit looking into the allegations of war crimes. Something that could lead to al-Asiri being questioned or even arrested if he sets foot in the UK again. Of course political interference from upon high will mean ultimately that goes nowhere. But that too has a cost for the government and arms trade when it comes to the legitimacy and the social license it needs to operate.

Not only that but it’s put a dampener on Theresa May’s trip to Saudi Arabia – a trip with a primary purpose of securing more arms sales. Royals and ministers have been visiting Saudi Arabia for decades to flog arms, but I can’t remember a visit where they have had anything like this level of opposition to it. It was not public that the Prime Minister was off to Saudi when the action happened – it turns out al-Asiri’s presence in the UK was designed to whitewash Saudi’s crimes in Yemen. Our action meant al-Asiri’s trip to the UK had the opposite effect – it framed the media agenda into one about Saudi war crimes and British complicity in them.

All in all we’ve caused a diplomatic incident, made the British Foreign Secretary apologise, disrupted the core purpose of a Prime Ministerial visit, and made news headlines across the world criticising the Saudi bombardment of Yemen and British arms sales to them. Not bad work for a couple of hours work from less than a dozen people.

IS: Beyond attempting a citizen arrest of Saudi Arabian government officials visiting the UK, what other action do you suggest people concerned about the continuing war in Yemen could take?

SW: It’s important that we protest any official Saudi government presence in the UK at the moment since 2.2 million children are in danger of starvation because of their actions in the Yemen. If you see them coming, get some people together and make a scene. This is particularly effective because they hate hate hate protest and, because they can’t lock you up and torture you as they would do in Saudi, just don’t know how to deal with it.

In the absence of a Saudi presence in your vicinity, Campaign Against Arms Trade have a wonderful set of ideas of what you can do about Britain’s out of control arms sales. They are currently organising opposition to DSEI – one if not the biggest arms fairs in the world which is coming to London in September. Get involved!

More broadly I think one of the secrets to a happy life is asking yourself how can your gifts be used to make a better world. The answers can be pretty broad! But acting on them always brings joy in my experience.

Follow Sam Walton on Twitter @samwalton.