Tag Archives: James Bloodworth

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

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

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

I set out his arguments and some basic responses below.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These tweets echoes an article Tatchell recently published in which he argued a “successful strategy might be to empower” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq – both of which have been fighting Islamic State.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In October 2015 Amnesty International released a report that found “evidence of alarming abuses, including eyewitness accounts and satellite images, detailing the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages” in areas of northern Syria under the control of the Syrian Kurdish political party PYD (the political party of the YPG militia). “By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the [PYD-controlled] Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes,” Lama Fakih, a Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International, noted. When I raised the report with Tatchell, he replied: “This action was wrong but exceptional & untypical of YPG. Overall, they have a good record of protecting civilians”.

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Turning somersaults when there is no whip’: Challenging James Bloodworth’s Warmongering

‘Turning somersaults when there is no whip’: Challenging James Bloodworth’s Warmongering
by Ian Sinclair
Ceasefire Magazine
18 December 2013

Recently, I found myself engaged in a Twitter argument with James Bloodworth, the Editor of the Left Foot Forward blog, columnist at the Independent and up and coming BBC commentator. On the ‘About’ section of its website Left Foot Forward says it provides “evidence-based analysis on British politics, policy, and current affairs.”

The discussion in question concerned Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head in an assassination attempt by Taliban gunmen because of her public support for girls’ education. What, asked another person involved in the conversation, should we in the West do to support the rights of schoolgirls in Pakistan? “Militarily defeating the people who shoot them, first off”, was Bloodworth’s response.

Twitter is, of course, a highly reductive and simplifying medium but Bloodworth’s position seems clear enough – he proposes military action by the US and UK in Pakistan and Afghanistan in support of female education. While expressed through only a minor Twitter exchange, Bloodworth’s gung-ho approach to the ‘war on terror’ is representative of a vocal, largely media-based, minority. As such, his arguments are worth spending time refuting.

The first problem for Bloodworth is that Yousafzai herself – the person who embodies everything he claims he wants to protect – disagrees with him. Invited to the White House for a PR photo-op, she reportedly told President Obama that US drone strikes in Pakistan were “fueling terrorism.” I emailed this quote to Bloodworth. His reply? “They’ve also been incredibly effective at killing top members of the Taliban.” Sharp-eyed readers will notice this justification mirrors the US Government’s line, with the CIA Director arguing in 2009 that drone strikes had been “very effective” in targeting the Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. As George Orwell once said “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.”

In contrast, consider the testimony of David Kilcullun, a counter-insurgency specialist and top adviser to General David Petraeus: “The drone strikes are highly unpopular”, he told the US House Armed Services Committee in 2009. “And they’ve given rise to a feeling of anger that coalesces the population around extremists and leads to spikes in extremism”. Robert Grenier, the CIA’s former station chief in Pakistan, agrees, explaining last year that the US “has gone a long way down the road of creating a situation where we are creating more enemies than we are removing from the battlefield.”

Across the border in Afghanistan is former MP Malalai Joya, who has also survived attempts on her life. A vocal supporter of female education, earlier this year she argued that “The US is the main obstacle towards the development of… democratic forces” in Afghanistan. The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan also supports the withdrawal of US and UK troops, telling me in 2009 “Freedom, democracy and justice cannot be enforced at gunpoint by a foreign country; they are the values that can be achieved only by our people and democracy-loving forces through a hard, decisive and long struggle.”

Yousafzai further challenged Bloodworth’s militarism when she appeared on The Daily Show in the US. Asked by host Jon Stewart how she personally dealt with the death threats, she replied “You must not treat others with cruelty and that much harshly, you must fight others through peace and through dialogue and through education.” I emailed this quote to Bloodworth. His considered response? “I’m not sure Churchill would agree.” The colonial bulldog may not have agreed but the British military leadership seems to be sympathetic. “There is a common perception that the issues in Afghanistan, and indeed elsewhere around the world, can be dealt with by military means”, said Air Chief Marshall Sir Jock Stirrup in 2007. “That’s a false perception.” So, to be clear, Bloodworth, the editor of supposedly the ‘No. 1 left-wing blog’ in the UK, is a far bigger supporter of UK military aggression than the country’s most senior armed forces leader.

Despite the armchair warmongering of commentators like Bloodworth, in recent years peace talks have been going on with the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, continued Western aggression has made a political settlement more, not less, difficult; according to Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the former UK special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I’m sure some of them are more willing to parlay”, he said in 2011. “But equally, for every dead Pashtun warrior, there will be ten pledged to revenge.”

In short, if followed through, Bloodworth’s militaristic posturing in support of more US and UK military action would mean energising and increasing the number of extremists, prolonging the conflict and therefore bringing about more violence and more deaths. Fortunately, the British public is a little smarter; over the past few years a large majority has supported the withdrawal of UK troops from Afghanistan. Unfortunately for us on the Left, however, it is Bloodworth – seemingly impervious to evidence and elementary logic – who is published in the Independent and sought-after by the BBC.

Iraq: Left Foot Forward’s James Bloodworth Goes to War Again

Iraq: Left Foot Forward’s James Bloodworth Goes to War Again
By Ian Sinclair
Huffington Post
21 August 2014

We are, it would seem, being misled about Iraq once again.

On 12 August 2014 the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said the UK was only providing humanitarian support and would not join the US in launching military strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq. Within six days the Government’s position had changed, with the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, stating on 18 August 2014 that the UK’s involvement in Iraq was expanding beyond the initial humanitarian mission.

So far the UK has helped transport weapons to the Kurdish armed forces, and has said it is open to arming the Kurds directly. However, as of today the Government has not ordered British forces into battle (there are, apparently, UK special forces in Iraq but politicians refuse to give any information about this and journalists seem happy to not pry further).

With events changing rapidly – both in Iraq and Western capitals – and the UK seemingly sliding into war once again in Iraq, now is the time for the anti-war movement, and anyone interested in keeping the US and UK out of Iraq, to apply pressure and make their arguments as forcefully as possible.

It is this critical window of opportunity that leads me to James Bloodworth’s latest blast of pro-war hot air – ‘Today ISIS is attacking the Middle East. Tomorrow it’ll be the West’. Having previously critiqued Bloodworth’s warmongering on Afghanistan and Pakistan, I’m not particularly keen to get down in the dirt again. However, his positions as Editor of the popular Left Foot Forward website and as an Independent columnist means he has a relatively wide audience, and therefore I think it’s important his simplistic, illogical and fact-free assertions are exposed for what they are.

Like much of the media and political commentary on the Iraq crisis, Bloodworth seems to have an aversion to expert testimony, instead preferring to base his argument on his own unsubstantiated claims. With this in mind, I’m going to do something really revolutionary for a journalist – cite people who have spent their professional lives visiting, researching and writing about Iraq, the Middle East and conflict more generally. Crazy, I know, but bear with me.

Bloodworth starts by arguing ‘now is the time for anyone of a remotely progressive temperament to call for an intensification of the military campaign against ISIS. Indeed, let more bombs fall on those who behead journalists’. Sceptics among you may wonder if it’s really such a good idea for the US and UK, whose 2003 invasion cost the lives of around 500,000 Iraqis and led to 4 million refugees, to start bombing Iraq again. Indeed, if you did have these kind of outlandish reservations, you’d be in agreement with such ignorant asses as the Deputy Head of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Programme, the Director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University Paul Rogers and Obama’s own Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs from 2011-12.

Bloodworth goes onto to say ‘It bears repeating: the existence of ISIS (as opposed to the group’s growth) is in no sense “our” fault.’ Now, we can get in to the semantics of what constitutes ‘fault’ but there seems to be broad agreement among Iraq observers like Professor George Joffe that the US-UK invasion of 2003 and occupation had something to do with the rise of ISIS – both in the deadly chaos and sectarianism the US-UK occupation (often deliberately) engendered, along with the repression US and UK forces directly meted out. For example, the New York Times recently reported the following about the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: ‘At every turn, Mr Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’s involvement in Iraq.’ The article goes on to note Baghdadi had spent five years in a US prison ‘where, like many Isis fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised’ (my emphasis added). Call me old-fashioned but this suggests the US and UK bear some responsibility for the current crisis.

Echoing Hillary Clinton’s criticism of Obama’s supposed lack of action in Syria, Bloodworth further argues ‘Isis have germinated so rapidly not because of George Bush and Tony Blair, but because Western governments decided at some point that it would be acceptable for Bashar al-Assad to drop explosives on the Syrian people in order to keep power’. Unfortunately for Bloodworth and the neo-con Clinton, Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University, has comprehensively debunked this argument. As has the Independent’s own veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn. As did two former NATO Secretary-Generals in June 2013.

Forget Brutus’s speech in Julius Caesar, a student of rhetoric would have a field day analysing Bloodworth’s work. He ends here by presenting a false binary opposition, with the pro-war pundits like himself on one side calling for action, and on the other side ‘those that are inclined to bury their heads in the sand’. In the real world, those opposed to, or at least sceptical of, US military strikes in Iraq – including Middle East scholar David Wearing, Diane Abbott MP, a former Director of Global Counter Terrorism Operations at MI6 and Guardian columnist Seamus Milne – have suggested a number of actions that could be taken that may reduce the threat from ISIS.

A few quick Google searches would have uncovered all this inconvenient expert testimony. But why complicate matters when your argument is as dangerously uninformed as Bloodworth’s is?

Asking the wrong questions: Western intervention in Syria, not inaction, has strengthened ISIS

Asking the wrong questions: Western intervention in Syria, not inaction, has strengthened ISIS
By Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
26 August 2014

Hillary Clinton, in what was likely an early attempt to position herself as strong on foreign policy for the 2016 US Presidential Election, recently criticised President Obama’s alleged failure to ‘help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad’.  This, she said, had  ‘left a big vacuum, which the jihadists have now filled’.

As is often the case, the BBC was happy to let established power define the news agenda. ‘Did inaction over Syria forment regional chaos?’, was the title of BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus’s BBC website think piece on the rise of ISIS [the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria aka the Islamic State] in Iraq.

The article was largely opinion free, but in a way it didn’t matter what  answer was given, the damage had already been done by how the story had been framed. As the American author Thomas Pynchon once wrote: ‘If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.’

Someone who has been answering the wrong questions on Western foreign policy for some time is James Bloodworth, Editor of Left Foot Forward and a columnist with the Independent.  Echoing the former US Secretary of State, Bloodworth argues: ‘ISIS have germinated so rapidly not because of George Bush and Tony Blair, but because Western governments decided at some point that it would be acceptable for Bashar al-Assad to drop explosives on the Syrian people in order to keep power.’  Political commentator Sunny Hundal made the same argument in June 2014.

Unfortunately, for Clinton, Bloodworth and Hundal, this argument has been thoroughly discredited.

Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, concluded: ‘As catastrophic as Syria’s war has been, and as alarming as the Islamic State has become, there has never been a plausible case to be made that more US arms for Syrian rebels would have meaningfully altered their path.’

Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s veteran Middle East Correspondent who has just published the book The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising, is also dismissive of Clinton’s claim, ridiculing it as ‘nonsense’.  ‘The idea, which is very widespread,’ says Cockburn, ‘that there was a moment that, with a few more guns and ammunition, that a moderate Syrian opposition could have taken over in Syria in 2011 or ’12 or ’13, is just unreal.’

More importantly, not only is the ‘West inaction in Syria is to blame for ISIS in Iraq’ argument wrong, it also hides a far more significant, inconvenient truth – that the West’s intervention in Syria is a key reason behind ISIS’s growth.

This argument contradicts the popular notion that the West’s role in Syria has been one of inaction and indifference. But, as with the common perception that President Obama is ‘intervention-averse’, the facts tell a different story.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, the Obama Administration, often along with the UK and France, has been supporting the rebels in Syria since at least mid-2012.  As the Wall Street Journal noted, from the early stages of the war the US has been ‘acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates’.  The CIA has played a key role, coordinating large arm shipments to the insurgents, training them in Jordan and providing significant amounts of non-lethal and financial support.

This support has likely prolonged the war.  Citing the academic literature on the subject, Professor Lynch notes: ‘In general, external support for rebels almost always make wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve.’

Middle East analyst Hassan Hassan has explained how many of the Western-backed rebels in Syria have changed their allegiance to ISIS.

Linking all this with the current crisis in Iraq, Cockburn makes the key point that: ‘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 not just the clarity of hindsight.  In June 2013, referring to the possibility of directly arming rebels or conducting military strikes against Assad’s forces, two former Secretary Generals of NATO argued:

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. The idea that the West can empower and remotely control moderate forces is optimistic at best. Escalation begets escalation and mission creep is a predictable outcome if the West sets out on a military path [emphasis added].

This, then, is the real link between the West’s role in Syria and the rise of ISIS – not Clinton’s evidence-free musings about President Obama’s inaction.  With the UK seemingly sliding deeper into war in Iraq, now is the time for the anti-war movement to challenge and change the popular narrative about the West and Syria – not least because it’s another example of the disastrous and deadly consequences of Western intervention in the region.

Ian Sinclair is the author of The March that Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003, published by Peace News Press. He tweets @IanJSinclair