Category Archives: US Foreign Policy

Ignoring Western bombing in the Middle East endangers us all

Ignoring Western bombing in the Middle East endangers us all
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 June 2017

The terrible consequences of the West’s air campaign in Iraq and Syria have dropped off the news agenda. No doubt the media would argue they have been preoccupied with the era-shaking general election and the Grenfell Tower disaster but the unpalatable truth is our so-called fiercely independent and critical fourth estate have rarely shown much concern with the human cost of Western military intervention in the Middle East.

For example, the Guardian did report United Nations (UN) war crimes investigators recently saying the US-backed assault on the Syrian city of Raqqa, the defacto capital of Islamic State (ISIS), had caused a “staggering loss of civilian life” – in a tiny article hidden on page 22 of the paper. According to the UN inquiry at least 300 civilians have died in recent weeks, with over 160,000 people fleeing the intensifying air campaign. The local activist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently stated the US-led coalition bombing has destroyed “almost every important building in Raqqa,” including schools and mosques. On top of this the New York Times reported local residents as saying the coalition were using munitions loaded with white phosphorus in eastern Raqqa (the use of white phosphorus in populated areas is prohibited under international law).

The coalition has also intensified its bombing campaign in Mosul, in an attempt to dislodge ISIS’s grip on the northern Iraqi city, including a March 2017 airstrike that is estimated to have killed around 200 civilians. In the same month the Washington Post noted “A sharp rise in the number of civilians reported killed in US-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria is spreading panic” with families describing “cowering in basements for weeks as bombs rained down around them and the Islamic State battled from their rooftops.”

In total, the independent monitoring group Air Wars estimates a minimum of nearly 4,000 civilians have died in the 22,600 air strikes the coalition has carried out in Iraq and Syria since 2014.

As well as killing thousands, like with the US bombing of Afghanistan and Pakistan the airstrikes in Iraq and Syria likely increase support for those they are targeting. “Its strongest recruiting tactic is to present itself as the one true guardian of Islam under attack from ‘crusader’ forces”, Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, argues about ISIS. Rogers’ analysis is borne out by the fact many of those who carry out terrorist attacks in the West cite Western military action in the Middle East as a justification for their actions. For example, the Wall Street Journal noted that “In the series of phone calls with the negotiator during the Orlando massacre” in June 2016 the perpetrator Omar Mateen “railed against US airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, saying they were killing women and children”.

So if Western military action isn’t the answer, what is?

First, we should work to close the external funding channels to ISIS and other extremist groups – the topic of a UK Home Office inquiry that has apparently been shelved by the government because it points the finger at Saudi Arabia, the UK’s closest partner in the Middle East.

In addition, it is well known that some of the “extraordinary amount of arms” that ex-US Secretary of State John Kerry says US has helped to send into Syria have ended up in extremists’ hands. In 2015 the Guardian reported ISIS captured 2,300 US-made Humvee armoured vehicles and huge amounts of weapons when it overran Mosul.

More broadly, it is important to understand the conditions that give rise to groups like ISIS – the extreme violence, chaos and sectarianism created by conflict. “There undeniably would be no ISIS if we had not invaded Iraq,” David Kilcullen, a top counter-insurgency advisor to the US military, argued in 2016. A similar relationship applies to Libya circa 2011 and also Syria – in both countries the West helped to escalate and extend the conflict by sending in arms and blocking peace initiatives.

So one of the most effective things the West could do to reduce ISIS’s power is work to deescalate the conflicts. In Iraq the West should be pressuring the Iraqi government to implement a political settlement that is fully inclusive of the Sunni community that has been alienated and marginalised since 2003 – conditions ISIS has exploited. And if military action is required Dr David Wearing, a Lecturer at SOAS, University of London, argues it is essential the fighting is left “to local forces that have popular legitimacy in those areas” – not Western forces.

That there is a connection between Western bombs killing people in the Middle East and terrorist attacks killing people on Western streets is obvious to all but the most blinkered. Stopping the former, which is likely to reduce the latter, is the pressing task facing concerned citizens in the West.

 

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)

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.

Book review. ‘Trump Unveiled: Exposing The Bigoted Billionaire’ by John K. Wilson

Book review. Trump Unveiled: Exposing the Bigoted Billionaire by John K. Wilson
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
April-May 2017

“A narcissistic, bigoted, even idiotic fool”, Donald Trump “is just a petty, vicious, angry man”, argues John K. Wilson in this short primer, published just before the US presidential vote.

Written in a no-nonsense, straightforward style, Trump Unveiled shows just how frightening Trump’s election to the highest office of the most powerful country in the world really is. The chapters on Trump’s racism, misogyny and his belief in wild conspiracy theories are often both hilarious (Trump reportedly told one woman “Once you made love to me, you’ll never to able to make love to anybody else”) and horrifying (he is a climate change denier). The American president is a “sociopath”, Tony Schwartz, the co-author of Trump’s 1987 book The Art of the Deal, said last year. “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

However, though it is important to highlight Trump’s unsavoury business dealings, ignorant arrogance and often contradictory political positions, arguably progressives need to jettison this often highly personal criticism and start to think systematically, radically and self-reflectively. Why did huge numbers of Americans vote for The Donald? Like many liberals, Wilson focusses on Trump’s outrageous public statements and behaviour while failing to seriously engage with the fact his campaign was likely successful because he repeatedly talked to working people about trade, jobs and declining industry.

The key task for the left now is to work out how Trump can be defeated – something Wilson’s book offers few insights on. In the short-term there are hopeful signs: his poll ratings are disastrously low, his administration is looking relatively weak and, as the growing scandal over the resignation of his National Security Advisor shows, wholly incompetent. In the long-term the left needs to be organised and powerful enough to make sure a credible, socialist-minded candidate gets the Democratic nomination for president. Given that Hillary Clinton’s enthusiastic backing for Wall Street deregulation and the North American Free Trade Agreement ultimately boosted support for Trump, a neoliberal, ‘pragmatic’ candidate is simply no longer an option.

Trump Unveiled is published by OR Books, priced £13.

 

“Politically dubious” and in “poor taste”?: Salvage magazine responds to my challenge about Jamie Allison’s ‘Disaster Islamism’ article

Politically dubious” and in “poor taste”?: Salvage magazine responds to my challenge about Jamie Allison’s ‘Disaster Islamism’ article
by Ian Sinclair
7 April 2017

Below is a recent email exchange I had with the editor of Salvage magazine, starting with an email I wrote to them highlighting two factual errors in Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’ article, and asking for a correction to be posted.

I don’t normally post email correspondence on a public platform. However, as the Editor was emailing in a professional capacity and as I have been accused of being “politically dubious” and acting in “poor taste”, I thought it is important people understand the kind of arguments the Editor of Salvage magazine makes.

5 April 2017 email received from the Editor of Salvage magazine:

“Dear Ian,

You have contested claims that Jamie makes in his piece. Such is the nature of disagreement. We do not accept your assertion that these constitute factual errors. You disagree with Jamie’s analysis of the available data, and you have responded in your own post, as is your right. We have no intention of ‘correcting’ Jamie’s piece, nor of posting a link to your piece.

Moreover, given yesterday’s chemical attack on Syrian civilians, we consider your anxiety about Jamie’s piece to be not merely politically dubious, but in rather poor taste. Please don’t contact us about this matter again.

Best

Rosie Warren
Editor-in-chief
Salvage”

5 April 2017 email I sent to Salvage magazine:

“Dear Salvage

I emailed you on 19 March pointing out a couple of key factual errors in a recent piece you published – see below. Would you be able to reply to my concerns, please?

Many thanks

Ian Sinclair”

19 March 2017 email I sent to Salvage magazine:

“Subject: Correct to Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’

Dear Salvage

I read Jamie Allinson’s recent piece ‘Disaster Islamism’ and have written a responsehttps://medium.com/@ian_js/getting-us-intervention-in-syria-wrong-a-response-to-jamie-allinsons-disaster-islamism-9ba20a5738fa#.j0ykn2a0b, pointing out at least two factual errors in Allinson’s piece: that the US only armed Syrian rebels with the precondition the arms would only be used against ISIS and also Allinson’s claim “the aim of the [US’s covert operations] was not to increase the supply of weapons”.

Would you consider adding a correction at the bottom of Allison’s piece highlighting these mistakes?

I look forward to hearing from you.

Ian Sinclair”

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 March 2017

Earlier this month Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned the world was facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Speaking to the UN Security Council, O’Brien said more than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria were facing starvation and famine.

Following up on this, on 17 March 2017 the Guardian published a report on Yemen, noting that aid agencies have warned the country is “at the point of no return”. UN figures show 17 million people facing severe food insecurity, the Guardian noted, including nearly seven million people deemed to be in a state of emergency. With the article relegated to page 29 of the newspaper, there was just one oblique mention of the US and UK, which the report explained “have influence over the Saudi-led coalition” currently attacking Yemen and blocking aid entering the country.

Here are the basic facts the Guardian chose not to highlight. Since March 2015 Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of countries in a bombing campaign to overthrow the Houthi government in Yemen (which itself overthrew the previous government). According to the United Nations there have been over 10,000 civilian casualties, with the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes responsible for the majority of casualties. In 2016 the Yemen Data Project – a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists – reported that one third of Saudi-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. Martha Mundy, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, believes “that in some regions, the Saudis are deliberately striking at agricultural infrastructure in order to destroy the civil society.”

The US and UK have been closely collaborating with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support”, the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced a month into the bombardment. Speaking to me last year, activist Medea Benjamin, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, explained Saudi Arabia is “getting munitions from the West… The US is even refuelling their planes in the air”. President Obama – described as “the reluctant interventionist” by senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland – sold $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia during his eight years in office. This makes the 44th president of the United States “the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history”, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel.

Speaking in January 2017, O’Brien was crystal clear about the main cause of the ongoing humanitarian crisis: “The conflict in Yemen is now the primary driver of the largest food security emergency in the world.”

The Guardian has form when it comes to (not) reporting the causes of the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Surveying the newspaper’s coverage of Yemen between June 2016 and mid-January 2017, Peace News Editor Milan Rai concluded “The critical role of the Saudi blockade in creating these conditions in Yemen has been effectively suppressed by the British media, including Britain’s most liberal mainstream newspaper, the Guardian.” According to Rai there were 70 stories or editorials about Yemen on the Guardian website during this period: “Most of those 70 items (42 stories, 60 per cent of the total) do not mention the humanitarian crisis – or the role of the Saudi blockade – in any way at all.” And though the other 28 articles did refer to the humanitarian crisis “most did so only in a way that effectively suppressed the information”, Rai notes.

Unsurprisingly a recent YouGov/Independent poll found more than half of British people were unaware of the war in Yemen, with just 37 percent of 18-24 year olds aware of the conflict.

Turning to Somalia, on 13 March 2017 the Guardian published a full page article on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in east Africa. “As many as 6.2 million Somalis – more than half the population – need urgent food assistance”, noted the Guardian, including “some districts… under the control of Islamist rebels al-Shahaab, making [aid] access complicated.” There is one mention of the US – “The US government says it has spent more than $110m on humanitarian assistance in Somalia in 2017.”

In reality, the US has been heavily involved in Somali affairs since the 1990s. These interventions, noted BBC journalist Mary Harper in her 2012 book Getting Somalia Wrong?, are viewed by “a growing number of experts” as having “contributed towards [Somalia’s] destruction as a viable nation-state.”

Speaking to Democracy Now! in 2013, journalist Jeremy Scahill explained that in the early years of the ‘war on terror’ the Bush Administration “made a disastrous decision to put [Somali] warlords on the CIA payroll” and “basically had them acting as an assassination squad.” A relative stability was created for a brief period when the Islamic Courts Union took control in 2006 – quickly shattered by the December 2006 US-supported Ethiopian invasion and occupation. The occupation, as occupations often tend to do, energised extremists, with Somali journalist Jamal Osman explaining “al-Shabaab was born when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and some still see the group as a resistance movement.”

Since then the US has been trying to destroy the group its actions helped create. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times reported “The US has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabaab”.

“Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union”, the report explained. “But in truth, according to interviews by US and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon”. The US government “is trying to achieve US military goals with minimal risk of American deaths and scant public debate”, the Los Angeles Times noted. Since then the US has intensified its clandestine war in Somalia “using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants”, according to the New York Times last year.

Like Yemen, the US military involvement in Somalia has negatively affected the country’s ability to deal with humanitarian crises. For example, though the Financial Times explains the looming famine in Somalia is primarily the result of regional drought, it goes on to note “The lack of effective government and an insurgency by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked jihadi group, have not helped.”

This quick survey of the Guardian’s recent coverage of Yemen and Somalia puts the lie to Guardian regular Polly Toynbee’s claim the newspaper is “always free to hold power to account: to take on politicians, global corporations, the secret security state or great vested interests.” The Guardian may well be free to hold power to account but it’s currently missing some huge open goals when it comes to Western foreign policy.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Guardian never mentions Western interference in Yemen and Somalia or links this to the growing humanitarian crises – I’m arguing the newspaper’s coverage does not match the importance of the issue. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent “That the media provide some information about an issue… proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage… More important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.”

Indeed, by downplaying of US intervention in Yemen and Somalia the Guardian have helped to keep the large swatches of the general public ignorant of Western foreign policy (see the YouGov/Independent poll) – a state of affairs that suits the US government’s interests, as the Los Angeles Times report above makes clear.

Getting US intervention in Syria wrong: a response to Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’

Getting US intervention in Syria wrong: a response to Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
16 March 2017

In February 2017 Dr Jamie Allinson, a Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh, published an article titled ‘Disaster Islamism’ in the revolutionary leftist Salvage magazine.

Allinson spends the first section of the article slaying a number of what he sees as leftist myths about the on-going Syrian conflict.

For example, he refers to “the myth of ISIS as US creation”. After reading his article I tweeted Allinson asking “which credible commentators, analysts or writers subscribe to this myth?” Allinson replied, noting Noam Chomsky and the former Guardian columnist Seamus Milne make the argument and that it’s “a pervasive belief on Stop the War and/ pro-Palestine marches I’ve been on, and very common on FB [Facebook] etc.” I checked Allinson’s sources, and found in the Milne article Allinson pointed me to that Milne clearly states “That doesn’t mean the US created ISIS, of course”. The Chomsky interview Allinson refers to has Chomsky quoting an ex-CIA Officer arguing ISIS grew out of US occupation of Iraq — an argument Allinson describes as “true” (though “inadequate”) in his article. Allinson’s smearing of Milne and Chomsky and citing the views of unnamed protesters is a textbook example of building a straw man to knock down, allowing Allinson to ignore more credible and sophisticated arguments and voices about Western intervention in Syria. When I pointed this out to Allinson he dismissively replied “Glad to hear it. Look forward to your disabusing people of that belief on StW marches. See you later.”

Unfortunately for Allinson the rest of the section of his article looking at Western involvement in the Syria war is littered with inaccuracies. As the article is 1) published in the influential and respected (amongst the Left, at least) Salvage 2) many of his arguments are repeated by others on the left including respected academic Professor Gilbert Achcar and Salvage Co-Founder Richard Seymour 3) Allinson criticises others for having a “dogged resistance… to empirical evidence” and 4) Allinson teaches the Middle East at one of the UK’s top universities, it is worth considering his assertions in detail.

I apologise for the length and repetitiveness of my rebuttal in advance — I thought it was important to present as much of the evidence as clearly as possible.

Has the US been pursuing regime change in Syria?

Allison believes it is a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change to topple the Ba’athist Assad regime”. “There is not, and never has been, An American imperial policy to overthrow the Ba’athist regime in Damascus”, he repeats emphatically later in the piece.

How should one assess whether the US has pursued regime change in Syria? First, one could consider the statements of the US government itself. “Assad must go — and I believe he will go”, President Obama stated in March 2013. In May 2013 White House Press Secretary confirmed “We have been making clear as a matter of United States policy that we believe that Assad must not continue to rule Syria”. In September 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry reconfirmed “President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go.” While one should always be wary of taking the public utterances of established power at face value, it is important to consider the enabling effect these statements of intent will have had on Syrian rebels and those who support them.

Many mainstream news outlets agree the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria. On 23 July 2012 the International Herald Tribune included the front page headline ‘US focuses on efforts to topple Assad government’, with the accompanying story noting the Obama Administration “is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down” the Syrian government. The same month the Wall Street Journal reported “The US has been mounting a secret but limited effort to speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, without using force, scrambling spies and diplomats to block arms and oil shipments from Iran and passing intelligence to frontline allies.” In October 2015 theWashington Post’s Liz Sly referred in passing to one of “the Obama administration’s goals in Syria — Assad’s negotiated exist from power.” Writing in July 2016, Dr Austin Carson, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and Dr Michael Poznansky, an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Intelligence Studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, noted the US is trying to achieve regime change in Syria.

US actions have broadly followed their public statements saying they wanted Assad removed from power. Since early 2012 the US has increasingly intervened in Syria, from making public statements about the Syrian government’s future, to sanctioning members of the Syrian government and sending non-lethal aid to the rebels who are trying to violently overthrow Assad. In 2013 Obama authorised the CIA to set up a programme, codenamed Timber Sycamore, to train and equip Syrian rebels. Citing US officials, in June 2015 the Washington Post estimated the programme — “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” — was spending $1bn a year and had trained and equipped 10,000 rebels.

Though conveniently ignored by Allinson, it is impossible to assess whether the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria without considering the US’s relationship with its allies in the region — specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. With all three countries keen to overthrow Assad, one would presume that if, as Allinson claims, the US wasn’t pursuing regime change in Syria, the US would have nothing to do with the attempts by its allies to topple the Assad government. In reality, the evidence clearly shows that US policy has been to use (and work closely with) Saudi Arabia and Qatar to try to overthrow the Syrian government.

Citing US and Arab officials, in June 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that “The US in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates”. In November 2012 the New York Times pondered whether the US should directly arm the rebels “rather than only continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar, to do so.” As “Assad has shown no signs of leaving — the United States has slowly stepped up its assistance to include non-lethal military support, while acknowledging and tacitly welcoming arms that are being supplied by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, noted the Washington Post in April 2013. And in June 2013 the Los Angeles Times noted that arms shipments from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to Syrian rebels were “provided with assent from the US.”

Dr Christopher Phillips, an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, provides some background to the US’s use of its regional proxies in his 2016 book The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the Middle East:

…they [the West, circa 2011–12] endorsed the regional powers’ support for the rebels. Western intelligence knew of regional arms transfers and financial support and, while they urged coordination, there were few efforts to stop them. Indeed, [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton effectively gave the green light, admitting in her memoirs that at a meeting in Riyadh in March 2012 she acknowledged what was already happening: ‘certain countries would increase their efforts to funnel arms, while others [i.e. the US] would focus on humanitarian needs.’ Yet far from standing by, the CIA and other western intelligence services allegedly facilitated many of these operations. (p. 143)

Dr Christopher Davidson, a Reader in Middle East politics at Durham University, seems to broadly agree, noting in his book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East — in a section titled ‘Syria — Enter the Proxies’ — that the Gulf monarchies “were encouraged” by the West “to enmesh themselves in the politics and financing of the Syrian opposition.” Davidson cites an article in Foreign Policy by journalist Elizabeth Dickinson: “Qatar had such freedom to run its network for the last three years because Washington was looking the other way. In fact, in 2011, the United States gave Doha de facto free rein to do what it wasn’t willing to in the Middle East: intervene.” By May 2013 a Financial Times article co-authored by Roula Khalaf was citing people close to the Qatar government saying that Qatar had contributed as much as $3bn to the Syrian rebels.

As Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden explained in 2012, the US has been working “hand in glove” with Saudi Arabia and its other allies in the region. “Officials in the Central Intelligence Agency knew that Saudi Arabia was serious about toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when the Saudi King named Prince Bander bin Sultan al-Saud to lead the effort”, reported the Wall Street Journal in August 2013. “They believed that Prince Bander… could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms”. Having worked together since the 1980s, according to a January 2016 New York Timesreport Saudi Arabia was a “willing partner” in the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme to support rebels fighting to overthrow Assad. “From the moment the CIA operation was started, Saudi money supported it.”

A couple of interim conclusions. First, it is concerning that the establishment corporate media seems to have a more sceptical and sharper analysis of US foreign policy in the Middle East than an academic whose expertise is the Middle East and is writing for a revolutionary leftist publication.

Second, despite Allinson’s denial, there is substantial evidence the US has been pursing regime change in Syria — confirmed by its own public statements, Obama authorising the CIA to set up a multi-billion dollar programme to support the armed opposition trying to overthrow the Assad government, and the US giving the green light to — and then working closely with — its regional allies working to topple Assad.

Of course, it’s important to remember, as Allinson argues in an article he wrote for New Left Project in 2012, that the Syrian conflict is “extremely complicated and difficult for even those within the country to grasp, let alone those outside of it.” US policy has not been static on Syria. Like any state’s foreign policy towards a long-term, multi-dimensional conflict, US policy on Syria has evolved over time. There is evidence that suggests the US actively pursued regime change in the earlier stages of the conflict, and then perhaps reduced its expectations from around 2014 onwards — looking to create the conditions on the battlefield (a stalemate) that would produce a the political settlement and the eventual exit of Assad, as Sly notes above (though this still sounds a lot like regime change to me). It’s also clear that senior Obama Administration officials and arms of the US state have had different positions and aims when it came to Syria. The discussions and divisions within Obama’s national security team have been extensively reported, as has the differing aims and methods of the Pentagon and CIA in country.

Has the US only armed Syrian rebels with the precondition the arms would only be used against ISIS?

Discussing the US funding and arming anti-Assad militias, Allinson asserts “the amount of weaponry and ammunition actually supplied by the US has been highly limited and the precondition of its supply was that it be used against ISIS rather than Assad”.

It’s an astonishing claim — refuted by a cursory glance at mainstream news reporting. While the US has spent significant funds trying to support rebels groups fighting ISIS, the US has also played a central — and much bigger — role in supporting the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government. As the New York Times explained in January 2016 (an article Allinson cites in his own article):

The CIA training program is separate from another program to arm Syrian rebels, one the Pentagon ran that has since ended. That program was designed to train rebels to combat Islamic State fighters in Syria, unlike the CIA’s program, which focuses on rebel groups fighting the Syrian military.

Has the US been interested in increasing weapons supplies to the Syrian rebels fighting Assad?

“Where the US has the most influence over weaponry supplies we see less or no fighting against Assad”, argues Allinson. “The evidence is conclusive; and incompatible with the claim that the US has armed the FSA to overthrow the Ba’athist regime.” Moreover, Allinson continues, “the aim of the [US’s covert operations] was not to increase the supply of weapons… but to ‘try to gain control of it.’”

Considering the evidence I’ve already presented above (available to anyone who bothers to look at the US mainstream press coverage of Syria) this is another astonishing claim by Allinson, though one repeated elsewhere.

In the real world countless media reports clearly show the US has been involved in increasing the amount of weapons going to the Syrian rebels which, unsurprisingly, has led to gains for the rebels on the battlefield — that is, more fighting with Syrian government forces, not less, as Allinson bizarrely claims.

In March 2013 the New York Times noted “With the help of the CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months.” The report goes on to summarise a former American official as saying “the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions” the CIA were helping to send to the rebels “are voluminous.” No less than the US Secretary of State told Syrian activists in 2016 that the US had “been putting an extraordinary amount of arms” into Syria. In his book Phillips refers to “vast sums [of arms] provided” (p. 145) to the Syrian rebels.

Compare Allinson’s claim that US influence over arms deliveries reduces fighting against the Assad government with the following reports. Washington Post, May 2012: “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States… The new supplies reversed months of setbacks for the rebels”. New York Times, March 2013: Qatari flights supplying arms to the rebels (“with help from the CIA”) “aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib” which “began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside.” New York Times, October 2015: “Insurgent commanders say that… they are receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles… making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.” These missiles “began arriving in the region in 2013, through a covert program run by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other allies”.Washington Post, October 2015: “So successful have they [US-made antitank missiles] been in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer’… in recent days they have been used with great success to slow the Russian-backed offensive”. In July 2016, two former members of the US National Security Council argued that those who support more US intervention in Syria “fail to recognize that the United States in fact has effectively weakened President Bashar al-Assad already. In 2015, the administration’s aggressive covert action program facilitated significant gains for the opposition in northern Syria”.

If the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria, why hasn’t it succeeded?

If the CIA “were heavily arming and supporting the Syrian opposition to overthrow the regime, we would have seen very different results”, argues Allinson. He later repeats this point, writing “If this is an attempt to overthrow the regime, it is a rather poor show.”

It’s an attractive argument but one that seems a little simplistic to me. While it is the world’s sole superpower, the US is not an all-powerful God but a state with competing priorities, domestic political pressures and finite budgets. Recent history — Iraq and Afghanistan — suggests the US does not always get want it wants. In Vietnam the US had the military power to ‘win’ the war but was unable to deploy this fully due to US public opinion.

Something similar seems to have happened with Syria. With the US preparing to conduct airstrikes on the Syrian government after its alleged use of chemical weapons in August 2013, New York Times/CBS News and Gallup polling both showed relatively low public support for military action — “among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years.” Kerry highlighted the government’s concern with public opinion and the American political landscape in his 2016 discussion with Syrian activists about US intervention in Syria: “How many wars have we been fighting? We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan, we’ve been fighting in Iraq, we’ve been fighting in the region for, you know, 14 years. A lot of Americans don’t believe we should be fighting and sending young Americans over to die in another country. That’s the problem. Congress won’t vote to do it.”

The rebel forces the US and its regional allies have been supporting have been riven by disunity and infighting. The US’s allies themselves have pursued their own national interests, according to Phillips (p. 145), which “helped produce a rebel marketplace that saw militia compete for resources rather than unite.”According to Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “America failed not because it didn’t try, but because its moderates were incompetent and unpopular. As soon as they began taking money and orders from America, they were tarred by radicals as CIA agents, who were corrupt and traitors to the revolution. America was toxic, and everything it touched turned to sand in its hands.”

Moreover, the Russian and Iranian support for Assad, in particular the direct Russian intervention in September 2015 — something Clinton didn’t think would happen when discussing overthrowing Assad in 2012 — is arguably the key factor why US attempts to overthrow Assad have failed. Phillips: “For every rebel gain, the regime received greater support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.” (p. 144) And here is the kicker: “As long as the regime retained its own foreign supporters, who appeared far more committed to Assad’s survival than western states were to his removal, it is unlikely that a limited number of western arms would force any compromise.” (p. 144–5) In short, Russia was able to overtly and decisively wade knee deep in the Syrian slaughter and not pay the price domestically (and perhaps internationally) that the US would likely have done for a similar level of intervention.

Conclusions

While Allinson admonishes others for their “dogged resistance… to empirical evidence”, it is clear Allinson himself ignores and therefore refuses to engage with the voluminous evidence that contradicts many of his central assertions about US intervention in Syria.

In turning his back on inconvenient facts, Allinson repeats a number of falsehoods about the US in Syria, significantly underplaying the level of the US interference in the conflict. As I have shown, the US is deeply involved in the Syrian war, helping to escalate and prolong the violence. There is considerable evidence to suggest the US (and the UK) has also played a key role in blocking a peaceful solution to the conflict. Therefore the US, along with Russia, Iran and other external actors such as the UK, is partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dead, the massive refugee flows and the wider destruction of Syria as a political, economic and cultural entity.

This uncomfortable reality is likely one reason why the US has chosen to make its largest and most effective intervention in the war (the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme) a covert operation. This secrecy, even when it has been compromised by widespread media reports, serves a number of purposes. First, the covert nature of the intervention allows the US government to minimise public discussion and scrutiny. Second, as Carson and Poznansky argue, “any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the ‘audience’ (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate”. Finally, regime change is illegal under international law, which means “the very nature of what the United States is trying to achieve in Syria — regime change — renders such concerns particularly salient”, according to Carson and Poznansky. The US’s covert action thus allows for what is known as “plausible deniability”.

“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions”, Professor Noam Chomsky wrote in his 1969 book American Power and the New Mandarins. Rather than expose the nefarious actions of the US government in Syria, by downplaying the level of US intervention in the face of overwhelming evidence Allinson is helping the US government continue to deceive Western publics.