Tag Archives: ISIS

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.

 

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Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
February-March 2017

Having published the critically-acclaimed After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies in 2012, with his new book Christopher Davidson has broadened his analysis out to the wider Middle East. For Davidson, a Reader in Politics at Durham University, ‘the primary blame for not only the failure of the Arab Spring, but also the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamist extremist organizations’ such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State ‘must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and “advanced-capitalist” administrations’ – that is, the West.

The 670-page tome (including 120 pages of footnotes) begins with a fascinating survey of the US and UK’s long history of interference around the world, opposed to any independent and democratic forces which might endanger access to natural resources or reduce the West’s geo-political advantage. In the Middle East this often covert counter-revolutionary strategy meant backing monarchs, radical Islamists and other reactionary forces, with the US taking the reins from the fading British Empire in the early 1950s. Davidson’s frequent citing of British historian Mark Curtis and American dissident William Blum hint at his own politics, though Shadow Wars delivers more detail and expertise than either Curtis or Blum. For example, there is an absorbing section about the US and UK’s support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan. “The US deliberately chose to back the most dangerous elements of the insurgency”, Davidson notes. The danger of this Machiavellian strategy was obvious, with 9/11 the shocking blowback.

Likely to be provocative to many, Davidson highlights a number of uncomfortable facts in chapters titled ‘Enter the Islamic State – A Phantom Menace’ and, more controversially, ‘The Islamic State – A Strategic Asset’. There is a welcome mention of the formerly classified 2012 US Defence Intelligence Agency report that notes the West wanted a ‘Salafist Principality’ to be established in Eastern Syria. Davidson also highlights how US-UK close allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Islamic State – confirmed by Hillary Clinton’s recently leaked emails that show the former US Secretary of State explaining the two Gulf monarchies are providing ‘clandestine financial and logistic support’ to the Islamic State ‘and other radical Sunni groups in the region’. So much for the Clash of Civilizations.

An accessible, though scholarly, tour de force, Shadow Wars is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the West’s ongoing and deadly interventions in the Middle East.

Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East is published by Oneworld Publications, priced £25.

*An edited version of this review appears in Red Pepper

Brimstone missiles target the British public, not Islamic State

Brimstone missiles target the British public, not Islamic State
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
27 January 2016

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) press office must have been popping the corks in celebration of the prominent role the Brimstone missile played in the debate about whether the UK should start bombing ISIS in Syria.

Opening the parliamentary session before the vote to go to war, the prime minister explained that “Britain conducting strikes in Syria will really make a difference” because “our Brimstone missiles” provide a “high-precision strike capability”. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon went one further, stating the Brimstone missiles “eliminates… civilian casualties because it is so precise”.

Proving George Orwell’s dictum that “Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks the whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns somersaults when there is no whip,” significant sections of our free press and many so-called independent experts faithfully echoed the government’s official line.

“The missile uses a low-powered but highly focused explosive warhead to reduce shrapnel hitting civilians,” noted the Telegraph. “The Brimstone is capable of hitting moving targets travelling at speeds of up to 70mph” and “can be launched from an aircraft up to seven miles away from as high as 20,000 feet.” The Daily Mail transformed from a newspaper into a sales brochure: “The missile that never misses: watch the incredible moment a drone launched Brimstone hits a car moving at 70mph from seven MILES away’. The Sun was equally enthusiastic just a week before the parliamentary vote: “Raining hell on IS: RAF missile will pinpoint jihadists SEVEN miles away.” The online media watchdog Media Lens accurately dubs this kind of overexcited narrow focus on the technical aspects of weaponry as “war porn”, with the BBC a big culprit.

Though their identity is based on notions of objectivity and critical thinking, academics can be just as susceptible to repeating government propaganda narrative as anyone else. For example, Dr James Strong, a Fellow in foreign policy analysis and international relations at the London School of Economics, was happy to sing Brimstone’s praises on both CNBC and Al Jazeera.

Those of independent mind with a basic knowledge of recent history will be far more sceptical of the claims made about, and the emphasis being put on, the Brimstone missile.

In the lead up to the 1991 Gulf War, the general public was repeatedly told about the precision weapons that would be targeting Iraqi forces. In reality 70 percent of all US bombs missed their targets, with precision-guided bombs making up just 7 percent of the US tonnage dropped on Iraqi targets. In his 2011 book The Death of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars, John Tirman explained that US bombing is estimated to have killed 20,000–30,000 Iraqi civilians.

On the day after the start of the illegal, unprovoked and deeply unpopular US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Sun published a double page proclaiming ‘THE FIRST “CLEAN” WAR’, with the sub-headline “Civilian deaths could be zero, MoD claims”. In actual fact “thousands of Iraqi civilians were killed or injured during the three weeks of fighting”, according to a December 2003 report from Human Rights Watch. Ten years later a peer-reviewed study published in the PLOS Medicine journal estimated the war and occupation directly and indirectly claimed the lives of approximately half a million Iraqis from 2003 to 2011.

Just as the government emphasised precision bombing in 1991 and 2003, in making the case for war in December 2015 the Prime Minister claimed there “had been no reports of civilian casualties” in the over 300 UK airstrikes in Iraq since September 2014. And, just like 1991 and 2003, independent analysis suggests a very different reality.

Air Wars, a not-for-profit transparency project staffed by journalists, estimates that between 72 and 81 civilian deaths in Iraq could be linked to British air strikes. Unfortunately, confirmation will be all but impossible because the MoD apparently only investigates reports of civilian deaths that come from UK military personnel and “local forces” deemed friendly.

Air Wars’s findings raises awkward questions for the Brimstone believers: either Brimstone missiles were used during these strikes that likely caused civilian deaths or they were not used, which suggests the extreme focus on the Brimstone missile by the government, military and media is unwarranted. Indeed, Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University, argues the Brimstone’s role is “far more important symbolically” than militarily because it will account for a “tiny proportion” of the total air strikes carried out on ISIS.

More broadly, the skilful public relations campaign pushing Brimstone probably has larger objectives other than simply defeating ISIS. First, as always, we need to follow the money. “MBDA, the manufacturer of the British Brimstone missile, is set to be the main economic beneficiary of” the decision to launch air strikes in Syria, notes the Sunday Herald. MBDA’s current order book of £7.8bn “is now set to increase significantly as missiles used in Syria and Iraq are eventually replaced.” With Brimstone missiles also used by the Saudi Arabian Air Force (which we don’t like to talk about because Saudi Arabia has probably used them in its UK-backed slaughter in Yemen), the Guardian recently reported the British Ambassador in Washington has been trying to get the US armed forces to adopt the missile.

Second, it is important to remember there was and continues to be considerable resistance to the British bombing in Syria, with a majority of Labour MPs and the Labour shadow cabinet opposed, along with the SNP, Plaid Cmyru, the Green Party, and a number of national newspapers.

The celebration of Brimstone, along with repeated references to “precision bombing”, was very obviously an attempt to gain public support for the military attack by neutering people’s concern about civilian casualties. Indeed, this propaganda play has likely had an additional worrying influence. “Politicians and public opinion in the West seem to be convinced that air power is less ‘messy’ than the use of ground forces,” according to Captain Steinar Sanderød of the Norwegian Air Force. “Such a perception of air power has greatly contributed to lowering the threshold for using force among Western politicians.”

All of which leads to a worrying realisation: the primary target of Britain’s Brimstone missiles so far has not been ISIS, but the British public.

– See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/brimstone-missiles-target-british-public-not-islamic-state-1698303657#sthash.kqI1HWkj.dpuf

ISIS: just a murderous death cult?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kate Hudson, General Secretary, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

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

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

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

Joe Emersberger, activist and commentator on Western foreign policy

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

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

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

Symon Hill, socialist pacifist author and campaigner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pouring more fuel on the fire: the case against UK airstrikes on Syria

Pouring more fuel on the fire: the case against UK airstrikes on Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2015

On 26 June, Seifeddine Rezgui, a 23-year-old student, murdered 38 people at a beach resort in Sousse, Tunisia. 30 of the dead were British nationals. Subsequent news reports have noted Rezgui received training at an Islamic State (IS – also known as ISIS) base in western Libya.

Speaking to the BBC a few days later, David Cameron argued IS was an ‘existential threat’ to the United Kingdom which required a ‘full spectrum response.’ Building on the prime minister’s inflammatory language, on 1 July, defence secretary Michael Fallon announced the government would likely seek parliamentary support to extend the current UK bombing of IS in Iraq to Syria.

The discussion in the mainstream media about the proposed intervention has been predictably narrow, focusing on questions of tactics and strategy. Will airstrikes be effective? Who will the UK airstrikes help on the ground? Is the Syrian conflict too complex to intervene? These concerns – what could be called the ‘fight the war better’ school of criticism – certainly deserve serious consideration. However, there are a number of important arguments and facts that are conspicuously absent from the ongoing debate taking place within the media and political elite.

No to war

Considering the horrifying record of UK military interventions in the Middle East since 2001, it’s extraordinary that further military action is now being seriously considered in Syria. The UK – fighting alongside the US and other allies – has decimated Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, killing and wounding hundreds of thousands of people and leaving whole swathes of the Muslim world seething with hatred at the actions of the West.

It is widely acknowledged that the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the subsequent occupation, played a central role in the creation of IS.

‘We definitely put fuel on a fire. Absolutely’, retired US army general Mike Flynn, head of the defence intelligence agency until August 2014, told Al-Jazeera when asked about the invasion of Iraq and IS.

In August 2014, the New York Times reported that the leader of IS spent five years in a US prison in Iraq ‘where, like many ISIS fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised’. General Flynn agrees that the US prison system in Iraq ‘absolutely’ helped to radicalise Iraqis who later joined al-Qa’eda in Iraq and the group that became Islamic State.

Asked by Al Jazeera English’s Mehdi Hasan if drone strikes tend to create more terrorists than they kill, Flynn, who had a key role in secret US drone operations, replied: ‘I don’t disagree with that’.

Moreover, an expansion of UK airstrikes on IS would be playing into IS’s overall strategy.

With the Sousse attack likely targeting British nationals (the hotel attacked was well known as a British holiday destination, and the gunman ignored local people), Paul Rogers, professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, argues that the attack was an attempt by IS to provoke a response. ‘Its strongest recruiting tactic is to present itself as the one true guardian of Islam under attack from “crusader” forces’, Rogers notes.

The Western attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia – and the airstrikes on IS since September 2014 – fit this narrative perfectly. Turning to possible responses to IS, Rogers contends ‘the best advice, as with al-Qaida over more than a decade, is not to do what it wants you to do.’

According to the US military, their air campaign against IS has so far struck over 7,000 targets, killing 1,000 IS fighters every month. However, Rogers notes, IS ‘has not only survived these attacks but in many places is thriving, attracting up to a thousand new recruits from across the region and beyond’. This is because, as Rogers intimates above, the Western airstrikes themselves – which no doubt kill civilians – act as a recruiting sergeant for IS. This was confirmed by James Comey, the director of FBI, who told congress in September 2014 that the US bombing of ISIS in Iraq had increased support for the group.

In a joint bulletin issued that same month to local, state and federal law enforcement, the department of homeland security and the FBI warned that while ‘single events generally do not provoke an immediate response’ from homegrown extremists, ‘we believe these [US air]strikes will contribute to homegrown violent extremists’… broader grievances about U.S. military intervention in predominantly Muslim lands, possibly motivating Homeland attacks’.

In terms of self-interest, broadening the UK war on IS to Syria will increase the likelihood of more terrorist attacks on British people – something the government claims it wants to reduce.

Finally, though Cameron’s spokeswoman was quoted by the Guardian as saying that military strikes in Syria would be legal under international law due to the threat posed by IS to the British people, this is almost certainly incorrect.

Marc Weller, professor of international law at the University of Cambridge, dismisses this argument, noting that although the UK ‘might argue that IS represents a manifest threat to their own security’ this is contradicted by Article 51 of the UN Charter which says ‘self-defence only applies to actual or imminent armed attacks, rather than potential or possible attacks.’

What could work?

There are many actions the UK government could take, short of military action, that would significantly reduce the power of Islamic State, the suffering their rise has caused, and the terrorist threat to the UK.

With the conflict causing a massive humanitarian crisis, the UK should massively increase its support for aid to the region. ‘Quite apart from the humanitarian imperative, there is the risk of greatly increased bitterness on the part of hundreds of thousands if not millions of people displaced from their homes’, Rogers says.

Britain could reverse its policies in relation to Syria. In addition to providing support to the armed rebellion in Syria, Hugh Roberts, the former head of the North African section at the International Crisis Group, recently explained, the US and UK have ‘sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys… to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting’.

Rather than helping to escalate and lengthen the conflict in Syria, the UK should pressure the key actors to agree a negotiated end to the fighting, which would reduce the chaotic and violent conditions that IS thrives in.

In Iraq, the UK should apply pressure on the Iraqi government to end the sectarian policies it has been pursuing, which have been pushing large numbers of Sunni Iraqis to support IS as a defence against the Iraqi state.

With Rezgui reportedly attending an IS training camp in Libya, the UK should fully support international efforts to stabilise Libya – a chaotic mess allowing jihadis to freely operate, in large part, because of the NATO intervention in 2011.

Dr Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, notes that Turkey has turned a blind eye to IS freely moving fighters and materials across the Turkish border into Iraq and Syria. As a NATO member largely armed by the West, diplomatic pressure should be applied to Turkey to immediately close the border to IS.

Diplomatic pressure should also be applied to the Gulf states to push them to clamp down on their citizens funding and supporting IS.

Finally, if any external military action is needed to combat IS or to keep the peace, then the UK should push for this to be done under the authority of the United Nations – an organisation that seems to have been forgotten by everyone discussing how to respond to IS. And if UN troops are deployed there should be minimal involvement from the Western nations who have done so much to destablise the Middle East in recent years and create the conditions for IS to grow so quickly.

Of course, the UK government’s geopolitical interests and alliances in the region and beyond mean they are likely to continue to follow their current counterproductive militaristic actions and are unlikely to sincerely implement these alternative non-military policies. And with the Labour Party having signaled they are sympathetic to the government’s proposal there is unlikely to be strong opposition in parliament (though Labour have said they will make their final decision after their new leader is elected in September 2015).

Therefore, it is up to the anti-war movement and peace activists to apply pressure on both the government and the Labour Party to force their hand. In the immediate future there needs to be strong opposition to the proposed UK bombing of Syria, while in the longer-term there needs to be a push for non-military solutions to the wider conflict.