Tag Archives: Mark Curtis

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs

It was the Blair and Bush, not Saddam Hussein, who lied about Iraq’s WMDs
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
21 December 2020

As the famous quote – commonly attributed to US writer Mark Twain – goes: “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that while the case for the 2003 Iraq war has been largely discredited, an unnerving amount of propaganda spread by the US and UK governments at the time still has some purchase today.

For example, Gerd Nonneman, Professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies at Georgetown University Qatar, recently tweeted about Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): “Saddam’s aim was to keep everyone at home & abroad guessing.” Similarly a November Financial Times review by Chief Political Correspondent Philip Stephens of two books on UK intelligence matters noted the then Iraqi leader “believed his domestic authority in Iraq rested on a pretence that he still had WMD.”

The thesis that Hussein tricked the rest of the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs is surprisingly common. Appearing on a 2013 BBC Newsnight special Iraq: 10 Years On veteran correspondent John Simpson said “It came as a shock to Blair and Bush to find that Saddam had craftily got rid of his weapons” before the 2003 invasion. And during his testimony to the Chilcot Inquiry in 2009, Sir John Scarlett, Chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) in 2003, argued Hussein wanted to create the impression he had WMD to “project power in the region”.

Compare these claims with public statements from Saddam Hussein and other members of the Iraqi government.

In early February 2003 Hussein told Tony Benn in an interview screened on Channel Four “There is only one truth and therefore I tell you as I have said on many occasions before that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction whatsoever”. Later that month he referred to “the big lie that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction such as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons” in an interview with CBS News. In December 2002 the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz told ABC News “We don’t have weapons of mass destruction. We don’t have chemical, biological or nuclear weaponry”.

As the US Brookings Institution think-tank noted in December 2002: “Iraq has repeatedly denied that it possesses any weapons of mass destruction.”

On 13 November 2002 Iraq told the United Nations it had neither produced nor was in possession of weapons of mass destruction since the inspectors left in December 1998. And two months earlier on 19 September 2002 CNN reported “Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri delivers a letter to the United Nations from Hussein stating that Iraq has no chemical, nuclear or biological weapons.”

What’s going on? Why are supposedly smart and informed people claiming Hussein tried to trick the world into thinking Iraq had WMDs when the evidence clearly shows the exact opposite – that the Iraqi leadership repeatedly denied having WMDs?

The answer is to be found in the part of Nonneman’s tweet preceding his claim about Hussein’s duplicity: “The problem wasn’t [US and UK] mendacity, it was intel being skewed by group think & failure to contemplate alternative explanations.”

If Hussein was deceiving the world, then it means the US and UK governments mistakenly, but sincerely, believed there were WMD in Iraq. In short, there were no lies about WMD. The 55 per cent of respondents to the July 2004 Guardian/ICM opinion poll who said UK Prime Minister Tony Blair lied were wrong.

Like the belief the Iraqi government was deliberately ambiguous about WMD, this thesis doesn’t stand up to elementary evidence either.

As anyone who had a passing interest in the news circa 2002-3 will remember, the UK government’s lies and deceptions on Iraq were numerous, relentless and increasingly blatant.

For example, Blair repeatedly said he wanted to resolve the issue of Iraq and WMD through the United Nations. The historical evidence suggests something very different. In a March 2002 memo to Blair’s chief foreign policy advisor, the UK Ambassador to the US set out a plan “to wrongfoot Saddam on the inspectors and UN SCRs [UN security council resolutions]”. How? A July 2002 Cabinet Office briefing paper explains: “It is just possible that an ultimatum could be cast in terms which Saddam would reject (because he is unwilling to accept unfettered access) and which would not be regarded as unreasonable by the international community.” The goal, then, was to use the weapons inspectors and the UN process to trigger war, not to negotiate a peaceful solution.

In July 2002 – fully eight months before the invasion and before UN weapons inspectors returned to Iraq in November 2002 – Blair also wrote to US President George Bush, telling him: “I will be with you, whatever.”

The minutes of a July 2002 meeting in Downing Street with Blair and senior government officials – recorded in the leaked Downing Street Memo – highlight further deceptions. The Head of MI6 is summarised as saying “Military action was now seen as inevitable” in Washington. “Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” The minutes summarise Foreign Secretary Jack Straw as saying the case for war “was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran.”

Furthermore, the JIC’s Assessment of 21 August 2002 noted “We have little intelligence on Iraq’s CBW doctrine, and know little about Iraq’s CBW work since late 1998”, while their earlier assessment on 15 March 2002 explained “Intelligence on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programme is sporadic and patchy.”

In contrast, Blair’s foreword to the infamous September 2002 dossier on Iraq’s supposed WMDs boldly stated “I am in no doubt that the threat is serious and current”, with the Prime Minister noting “the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt is that Saddam has continued to produce chemical and biological weapons.” 

Largely ignored by the media at the time, and rarely mentioned since, is the testimony of Iraqi general Hussein Kamel, the head of Iraq’s weapons programme in the 1980s and 1990s, which was leaked to Newsweek magazine. Speaking to UN inspectors in Jordan in 1995 Kamel, who was Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law, said “I ordered the destruction of all chemical weapons. All weapons – biological, chemical, missile, nuclear were destroyed.” However, not only did the Blair government fail to disclose this important information in the run up to the war, Blair shamelessly cited Kamel when he pushed for war in parliament on 18 March 2003: “Hussain Kamel defected to Jordan. He disclosed a far more extensive BW [biological weapons] programme and for the first time said Iraq had weaponsied the programme.”

What does all this show?

First, it highlights the power of what British historian Mark Curtis called “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world”. For example, a 2006 Harris Interactive poll found half of Americans believed that Iraq had WMD when the US invaded in 2003.

Second, it suggests supposedly highly educated, critically-minded members of the elite, such as Nonneman, Simpson and Stephens, are as susceptible to government propaganda as anyone else. Indeed, US dissident Noam Chomsky suggests intellectuals are likely the most heavily indoctrinated sector of society: “By and large, they’re part of the privileged elite, and share the interests and perceptions of those in power.” Chomsky notes “the respected intellectuals in virtually every society are those who are distinguished by their conformist subservience to those in power.”

And finally, it highlights the upside down moral world we live in.  So while Blair, his spin doctor Alastair Campbell and Chancellor Gordon Brown all played a central role in the illegal and aggressive invasion of Iraq that led to 500,000 dead Iraqi men, women and children, millions of refugees and created the conditions for Islamic State to prosper, all three continue to appear regularly in the mainstream media.

In a sane and just world the only public appearances these men would be making would be at The Hague to answer for their crimes.

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

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy

BBC Document and the reality of UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
12 October 2020

In the introduction to his first book, The Ambiguities of Power: British Foreign Policy Since 1945, historian Mark Curtis notes two broad approaches are available to those attempting to understand British foreign affairs. “In the first, one can rely on the mainstream information system, consisting primarily of media and academia”, he explains. This approach frames British foreign policy as “fundamentally benevolent”, promoting grand principles such as peace, democracy and human rights.

No doubt this narrative informed the results of the recent Ipsos MORI poll, which found 34 per cent of Brits believe the British Empire is something to be proud of, with just 16 per cent saying it is something to be ashamed of (around 40 per cent think it is something neither to be proud nor ashamed of).

For those interested in discovering the reality of British foreign policy Curtis recommends a second method – studying formerly secret government documents and a variety of alternative sources.

A good illustration of this thesis is the BBC Radio 4 programme Document. Broadcasting at least 57 episodes between 2005 and 2017, Document was an historical investigation programme that used previously secret government records to illuminate Britain’s past. Two episodes on forgotten chapters in British history are particularly pertinent to understanding post-war UK foreign policy – the first from 2009 on the 1970 coup in Oman, and the second from a year later looking at the 1963 “constitutional coup” in British Guiana.

Though it has never been a formal colony, the British had an extraordinary level of influence in Oman, with Sultan Said bin Taimur, the country’s authoritarian ruler since 1932, one of the UK’s most reliable clients in the Gulf. The Sultan’s armed forces were headed by British officers, while “his defence secretary and chief of intelligence were British army officers, his chief adviser was a former British diplomat, and all but one of his government ministers were British”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain explained in 2016.

Studying secret UK government documents and interviewing academics and British officials involved in the coup, Document undercovers a fascinating, if shocking, story of deceitful British interference.

With a rebellion gaining ground in the Omani province of Dhofur, in 1970 the British elite in Oman and the British government itself came to the conclusion Taimur had become a liability.

The Sultan’s son, Sandhurst graduate Qaboos bin Said, was supported in his bid to take power. Sir Ranulph Fiennes, then a soldier in the Sultan’s army, tells Document “[UK intelligence officer] Tim Landon, with Harold Wilson’s government and with PDO – Petroleum Development Oman” and others “plotted to get rid of Said bin Taimur”.

In a July 1970 “secret” document, Anthony Acland, the Head of the Arabian Department in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), reports Colonel Hugh Oldman, Taimur’s Secretary for Defence, “has now instructed Brigadier Graham, the Commander of the Sultan’s armed forces… to prepare detailed plans for two contingencies.” If the coup is successful the armed forces were to “align themselves with Qaboos and facilitate his constitutional succession to the Sultancy as fast as possible.” In the event the coup failed, the armed forces “would assist Qaboos in gaining control” and “in deposing his father.”

Acland explained Qaboos “is likely to be a much better bet” than Taimur. And as the newly installed Sultan would rely heavily on British support this would likely better protect Britain’s “specific interests in the Sultanate – i.e. [the RAF base] Masirah and oil”, he notes.

“We would of course maintain the public position that we had no foreknowledge”, Sir Stewart Crawford, the most senior British official in the Gulf, states in a secret 13 July telegram to the FCO, about the plan. “The correct form should be observed so as to enable the coup to be presented as an internal matter with the British hand concealed, or at least deniable.”

Just ten days later, on 23 July, Taimur was deposed and replaced by Qaboos. The operation involved the seizure of the Sultan’s palace and the Sultan himself “by a small body of troops loyal to Qaboos, with the assistance of some British officers”, notes Abdel Razzaq Takriti in his riveting 2013 history Monsoon Revolution: Republicans, Sultans, and Empires in Oman, 1965-1976. Taimur, injured in the coup, was quickly flown out of the country by the Royal Air Force and eventually installed in the Dorchester hotel in London until his death a couple of years later.

“Despite Britain’s deep involvement in the coup that toppled Oman’s head of state no questions seemed to have been asked about it in parliament”, Mike Thomson, the presenter of Document, notes.

The UK’s actions in British Guiana in the 1950s and 1960s reveal a similarly disturbing story of colonial arrogance and interference. A British colony since 1814, the popular politician Dr Cheddi Jagan became the country’s Chief Minister in 1953, after leading the socialist-leaning People’s Progressive Party to victory in a democratic election. With British commercial interests – sugar and bauxite, in particular – threatened, Winston Churchill’s government dispatched British forces who forcibly removed Jagan from power, briefly jailing him. Interviewed by Document, Dr Spencer Mawby, an historian at the University of Nottingham, notes “The pretext [for the British military action] itself was dramatic because the British said basically there was a plot to burn down [the capital] Georgetown”.

“Was there?”, asks Thomson. “There was no plot”, Mawby confirms.

Ten years later, with new elections and independence fast approaching, the British made a second major intervention.

It was understood that Jagan, the nation’s premier again after winning the 1961 election, was likely to win the next election and lead an independent British Guiana. This fact was intolerable to the US government, which was worried about Jagan’s politics and the possibility he would align the country with Cuba. Accordingly, the US government successfully pressured an initially reluctant Britain to act to stop Jagan winning the next election.

With communal violence intensifying and an 80-day general strike starting in April 1963 paralysing the nation, the UK organised an independence conference in London, inviting the main political actors in British Guiana to resolve the crisis. Point of interest: Thomson confirms the general strike was likely “orchestrated and financed by the CIA”.

A formerly “top secret” document, recording an October 1963 meeting in the Colonial Secretary’s office, sets out the British government’s plan for the conference, held two weeks later. “It was important to ensure both that the conference and in the meantime that Dr Jagan and [British Guianese opposition leader] Mr Burnham failed to agree”, it notes. The document continues: “It was agreed that when the conference ended in deadlock the British government would announce the suspension of the constitution and the resumption of direct rule.”

With elections in British Guiana previously held under the First Past The Post system, the British government proposed a system of Proportional Representation (PR) for the upcoming election. They did this knowing Jagan would find it difficult to win under PR, and that Jagan would refuse to accept this.  

Thomson summarises the incredible deceit: “This document appears to show that the British government was setting out to deliberately scupper its own conference.”

The UK and US governments got what they wanted. After Jagan rejected the change to the voting method, Britain resumed direct rule and switched the voting system to PR. Jagan was then defeated in the 196 election, with Burham forming a coalition government that was in place when the country became independent Guyana in 1966.

These two historical episodes thoroughly undermine claims of UK benevolence in world affairs. In reality, commercial and geopolitical concerns, not self-serving notions of democracy and human rights, drive British foreign policy. And in the pursuit of this naked self-interest anything goes, including illegal coups, the undermining of democracy, covert action, and the most duplicitous, Machiavellian behaviour one could imagine.

“Are we the baddies?”, asks a German soldier, slowly beginning to realise the reality of his country’s role in the Second World War, in That Mitchell and Webb Look’s famous comedy sketch.

No doubt it will be news to the vast majority of mainstream media commentators and much of the British public, but the historical record clearly shows it is the British government which has been the bad guys in the post-war world.

BBC Document episodes are archived at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006sk3k. Ian tweets @IanJSinclair.

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy

The elite versus the public: the struggle over UK foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair

Peace News
August 2020

After interviewing more than 36 senior officials in the Johnson and Nixon administrations for The War Within, his 1994 book about the movement against the Vietnam War, US historian Tom Wells concluded that ‘the movement played a major role in constraining, de-escalating, and ending the war.’

Admiral Thomas Moorer, the chair of the joint chiefs of staff during Nixon’s presidency, told Wells the movement ‘had a major impact… both in the executive and legislative branches of government.’

However, despite this huge influence, Wells found ‘few activists fully appreciated the considerable political power they possessed’. This failure to appreciate the impact of their actions ‘hurt their cause’, he argued, leading to ‘defections from the movement’ and to ‘lethargy, stagnation, and despair in the movement’s ranks.’

‘Moreover, some Americans never protested because they felt it was futile.’

A window

A new report prepared for the UK ministry of defence (MoD) inadvertently highlights how the post-9/11 anti-war movement in the UK has had a similarly important impact on British foreign policy – an influence largely unknown to the general public, and to many activists too.

Published by the RAND Corporation, a US think tank, The Utility of Military Force and Public Understanding in Today’s Britain is co-written by top British military historian Hew Strachan (currently professor of international relations at the University of St Andrews) and Ruth Harris (currently a researcher at RAND Europe, previously an RAF officer).

‘The government’s preference is to see both strategy and defence policy as areas to be settled between it and the armed forces, and so far as possible within the corridors of power’, the authors note.

The outcome of this largely unexamined agreement is that ‘the making of strategy in today’s Britain is an elite activity, hammered out by ministers, civil servants and chiefs of staff.’

This elite stitch-up works well for the government because it believes ‘the public is reluctant to support the cost of defence’ and ‘is unpersuaded of the utility of military force’, Strachan and Harris state. ‘The Whitehall mindset towards the public on matters of defence tends to be one of distrust.’

Why is the public not supportive of UK military action?

‘The prevailing conventional wisdom is that the wars in which Britain has engaged since 9/11 have created a public mood which respects the armed forces but doubts the utility of military force’, the authors explain.

Indeed, while it didn’t stop the UK’s involvement in the invasion and occupation of Iraq, there is evidence the anti-war movement, by informing and mobilising the wider British public, had a significant constraining influence on the actions of UK forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Limiting Iraq

Discussing the UK military deployment to Iraq from 2003 onwards, major general (ret) Christopher Elliott notes there was ‘a cap on numbers, driven by political constraints rather than military necessity.’ The consequence of this was that the UK had ‘insufficient troops to be effective in the post-conflict phase in Iraq’, forcing ‘commanders in-theatre to react to events, and not to be able to shape them’. (RUSI Journal, 29 September 2016)

In addition, it is likely UK public opinion shaped the timing of the UK withdrawal from Iraq.

Contrary to claims from the UK government, a Telegraph report noted the US military ‘has no doubt’ the UK’s pull-out from central Basra ‘is being driven by “the political situation at home in the UK”.’ (Sunday Telegraph, 19 August 2007)

Speaking at the London School of Economics in May 2012, Greg Muttitt, author of Fuel on the Fire: Oil and Politics in Occupied Iraq (Bodley Head, 2011), argued the overall British pull-out from Iraq in April 2009 ‘was largely because their continued presence in Iraq was politically toxic’ in the UK.

Limiting Afghanistan

A similar dynamic was evident in Afghanistan, with US general Stanley McChrystal, then NATO commander in Afghanistan, pushing for British troops to be moved out of ‘harm’s way’ because the Taliban would target them in the lead-up to the 2010 British general election.

McChrystal held ‘the view that Britain’s continued participation in Afghanistan will be more acceptable to an increasingly sceptical British public if troops are switched to less dangerous duties, including “capacity building”.’ (Observer, 8 November 2009).

Writing in 2013, Strachan provides an insight into the impact of public opinion on the British withdrawal from Afghanistan by 2014, announced by British prime minister David Cameron in 2010: ‘He [Cameron] explained his timeline not in relation to conditions which he saw as likely to prevail in Afghanistan but in terms of what the British public would demand.’

UK propaganda I

Aware that public opinion can hamper the actions of British forces, the UK military and government spent considerable resources trying to manipulate the public to increase the popularity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This fear of the public manifested itself very early after 9/11.

Under the heading ‘Propaganda’, in a declassified October 2001 letter, British prime minister Tony Blair suggested to US president George Bush: ‘we need a dedicated, tightly knit propaganda unit for the war generally [against Afghanistan and later Iraq]’.

What followed in the lead-up to the 2003 US–UK invasion of Iraq was ‘a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world’, according to British historian Mark Curtis. (Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq, Pluto Press, 2004)

More specifically, a November 2003 Guardian report revealed ‘a [MoD-organised] media offensive aimed to convert the UK public to supporting the outcome of the Iraq War’.

According to leaked confidential papers ‘the MoD’s main target is the UK public and media while [the main target] of the Basra headquarters for British troops is the Iraqi people.’

In Afghanistan, the military tried to shape the narrative of the war by controlling the media coverage. ‘There is a general policy by the MoD to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons’, a senior officer told the Telegraph in September 2008.

‘If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the Government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.’

The Syria vote

The huge post-9/11 UK anti-war movement, peaking with the largest demonstration in British history on 15 February 2003, has had a long tail of influence on UK foreign policy going far beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

For example, in August 2013, the British government was set to support planned US air strikes in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government.

However, unexpectedly, the house of commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. This was the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since 1782. The UK was forced to cease its involvement in the proposed strikes.

Public opinion was strongly opposed to military action, with a YouGov poll just before the vote showing opposition at 51 percent, and support at just 22 percent (Peace News, October 2013).

‘The spectre of the 2003 Iraq War hung over the Commons’ during the Syria debate. (Guardian, 30 August 2013) When Labour leader Ed Miliband met with the prime minister and deputy prime minister in Downing Street just before the parliamentary vote, a source reported: ‘Ed said to the Prime Minister: “You have to realize that after Iraq nobody trusts any of us”.’ (Guardian, 29 August 2013)

Professor Richard English, a historian at the University of St Andrews, confirms the link: ‘The decision in the House of Commons about Syria was really a decision about Iraq, but a few years late.’ (Guardian, 12 February 2014)

More importantly, in addition to stopping UK involvement in the attack, the parliamentary vote played a crucial role in halting the wider US air strikes.

The day after the parliamentary vote, officers on board US warships in the Mediterranean were expecting launch orders. (Wall Street Journal, 17 September 2013)

However, after speaking with advisers, US president Barack Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the air strikes, telling aides that ‘He had several reasons … including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.’ (New York Times, 31 August 2013)

With opposition building in the US congress, the attack was called off in favour of a joint US–Russian plan to force the Syrian government to give up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US secretary of state at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017.

‘The president had already decided to use force’, he explained, but ‘the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.’ (Guardian, 6 January 2017)

The government defeat – that is, the democratic process – created panic within the British establishment.

Alistair Burt, minister for the Middle East from 2010–2013, argued: ‘the UK finds itself in quite a mess.’ If the government has to convince a majority in parliament, he worried, ‘to what can government commit itself in discussions with allies, or prepare in advance for regional strategic defence?’ Burt continued: ‘Just occasionally politicians need space and time to take unpopular action that they believe in the long run is in their nation’s interest.’ (Guardian, 7 February 2014)

On 18 December 2013, the chief of the defence staff, general sir Nicholas Houghton, noted in a lecture to the Royal United Services Institute: ‘the purposes to which [the armed forces] have most recently been put has seldom been more deeply questioned. As a nation we have become a touch sceptical about the ability to use force in a beneficial way.’

UK propaganda II

Just after the parliamentary vote on Syria, the Guardian carried an extraordinary front-page story which further highlighted the power of the UK anti-war movement.

Under the headline, ‘MoD study sets out how to sell wars to the public’, the report provided a summary of a November 2012 MoD document, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act: ‘The armed forces should seek to make British involvement in future wars more palatable to the public by reducing the public profile of repatriation ceremonies for casualties’.

The article went on: ‘Other suggestions made by the MoD thinktank in a discussion paper examining how to assuage “casualty averse” public opinion include the greater use of mercenaries and unmanned vehicles, as well as the SAS and other special forces, because it says losses sustained by the elite soldiers do not have the same impact on the public and press.’

Noting ‘the public have become better informed’, the report also recommended the armed forces run ‘a clear and constant information campaign in order to influence the major areas of the press and public opinion.’ (Guardian, 27 September 2013)

Since then, UK military interventions have broadly followed these proposals, with Mark Curtis highlighting in 2016 that Britain was involved in at least seven covert wars in the Middle East: ‘Whitehall has in effect gone underground, with neither parliament nor the public being allowed to debate, scrutinise or even know about these wars.’ (Huffington Post, 18 October 2016) (The seven covert wars were in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.)

Chris Cole, director of Drone Wars UK, tells me: ‘The increasing use of air power by the UK rather than the use of ground troops has been remarkable.’

He continues: ‘In Iraq and Syria over the past five years, for example, there have been few troops on the ground but thousands of air strikes. And increasingly, drones are being used to undertake those strikes.

‘In its first five years in service, British Reaper drones fired just over 350 bombs and missiles. In the last five years, however, that has increased by more than two-and-a-half times to almost 1,000 – and that’s an aircraft we are told is primarily used for surveillance.’

Occasional isolated news reports have highlighted that British special forces are operating in Iraq (Independent, 6 November 2016), Yemen (Daily Mail, 23 March 2019) and Syria (Guardian, 7 January 2019), but there has been no sustained media coverage or parliamentary interest.

In September 2013, the New York Times reported how British intelligence had been ‘working covertly’ with Saudi Arabia ‘for months… quietly funnelling arms, including antitank missiles’ to the armed opposition to the Syrian government.

‘Britain’s special forces are more secretive than any of the UK’s Five Eyes allies’, investigative journalist Phil Miller, author of Keenie Meenie: the British Mercenaries Who Got Away with War Crimes (Pluto Press, 2020), tells me. (The Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance links the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US.)

Miller goes on: ‘This secrecy prevents transparency around unsafe equipment and training accidents, to the detriment of the soldiers themselves and their families. There is no need for this level of secrecy in a mature democracy.’

Ongoing struggle

While I’ve highlighted how the UK anti-war movement has played a key role in constraining, and even stopping, UK military action, it is important to understand these clear-cut successes are relatively infrequent – the government usually wins in this high-stakes confrontation.

In 2014, parliament voted in support of air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq, and then a year later against Islamic State in Syria. At the time of the two parliamentary votes, polls showed clear support for the air strikes amongst the public. (YouGov, 26 September 2014 and 25 November 2015)

The UK then took part in punitive missile strikes against the Syrian government in April 2018 without a vote in parliament.

The election of anti-war, anti-imperialist Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party represented the best opportunity in a generation to break the elite consensus on foreign policy. In response, large sections of the media waged an unrelenting war against him, with a ‘senior serving general’ even threatening a military coup should he be elected prime minister. (Independent, 20 September 2015)

The Labour Party’s defeat in the December 2019 general election was therefore a huge victory for the elite and their preference for excluding the public from foreign policy decision-making. Despite these setbacks British foreign policy continues to be highly contested, with an ongoing struggle over public opinion and military interventions.

As Curtis argues in his book, Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World (Vintage, 2003): ‘It is no exaggeration to say that Britain has visited widespread destruction on many parts of the world, overthrowing popular governments, trampling over human rights, undermining democratic forces in favour of repressive elites’.

The UK ‘gets away with this largely because of the domestic structures of power’, he concludes.

The extent to which anti-war and peace activists are able to effectively organise, shift public opinion and intervene in the elite decision-making process described by Strachan and Harris therefore has enormous ramifications.

Praising Alistair Burt and forgetting the bloodbath in Yemen

Praising Alistair Burt and forgetting the bloodbath in Yemen
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
8 April 2019

“I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists”, US writer Glenn Greenwald tweeted in September 2015.

In addition to the media, the recent response to Alistair Burt MP resigning from his position as Minister of State for the Middle East over the government’s handling of Brexit shows this herd-like behaviour also infects sections of civil society and apparently progressive politicians.

“Many disagree with UK policy in the Middle East but he has a reputation for even handedness”, tweeted the Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor Patrick Wintour. “Big blow to FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office].” Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor echoed these thoughts, noting Burt was a “well respected foreign office minister.” Minutes later Scottish National Party MP Alison Thewliss tweeted her own tribute: “Alistair Burt attended pretty well every debate on Yemen and helped as much as he could.” Tom Copley, Labour Party London Assembly member chipped in: “I’ve heard nothing but good things about Alistair Burt.” A Communications staffer in the Labour Party, Tom Hinchcliffe, tweeted that though he disagreed with their politics “ministers like Alistair Burt are genuinely decent people. They believe what they say and they’re in it for the right reasons.”

“Sad to hear that @AlistairBurtUK has resigned… a loss to Middle East diplomacy”, tweeted James Denselow, the Head of Conflict Team at Save The Children UK.

As Morning Star readers will know, Burt, as the Middle East Minister from 2017-2019, has played a central and very public role in British policy on Yemen, a nation engulfed in war after the Saudi-led coalition started bombing the country in March 2015 in support of deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Two years later, in March 2017, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced Yemen was “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”.

Out of a population of 29.3 million, nearly 17.8 million people were food insecure and 8.4 million were on the brink of famine, according to a September 2018 report by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): “Since April 2017, a cholera epidemic has swept through Yemen at an unprecedented scale.”

The crisis is fundamentally man-made, with the Saudi-led coalition implementing a brutal blockade of Yemen, stopping vital goods entering the country. “These delays are killing children”, Grant Pritchard, interim country director for Save the Children in Yemen, said in March 2017. “Our teams are dealing with outbreaks of cholera, and children suffering from diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition. With the right medicines these are all completely treatable – but the Saudi-led coalition is stopping them getting in. They are turning aid and commercial supplies into weapons of war.”

Indeed, in November 2018 Save the Children estimated approximately 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger or disease in Yemen since March 2015.

According to the OHCHR report the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes “have been and continue to be the leading direct cause of civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure in the conflict.” This fits with the 2016 findings of the Yemen Data Project – that one third of Saudi-led air raids had hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. By October 2018 the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project was estimating 56,000 people had been killed between January 2016 and October 2018.

What has been the UK’s role in this mass slaughter?

“We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015. “Political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”

Unusually in foreign affairs, the UK government has kept its word. Asked “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?”, Burt told Majella magazine in 2018 “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”

In terms of armaments, in February the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations noted the UK has licensed £4.7 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia since March 2015. Britain’s seemingly bottomless support for the absolute monarchy even went as far as the UK Foreign Secretary recently lobbying Germany to resume their arms sales to the Kingdom following a ban after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Speaking to the House of Lords Select Committee Burt said he wanted to make it “very clear” that the UK was “not a party to the military conflict as part of the coalition.” However, last month The Mail on Sunday revealed British Special Forces had been wounded in combat fighting against Houthi rebels. The report notes “The SBS [Special Boat Service] mentoring teams inside Yemen include… Forward Air Controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.”

Britain’s rapacious role in Yemen is quite simply “the worst thing that the British government is doing today”, Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, argued in a 2017 Novara Media video. “Make no mistake: the British role here is not trivial. If the considerable assistance that our government is providing to the Saudis was to be removed it would seriously impede the Saudi war effort.”

Burt, then, as the UK’s Minister of State for the Middle East, was up to his neck in the blood of tens of thousands of Yemeni men, women and children. Not according to Laura Kuenssberg though, who called him a “well respected foreign office minister”, or Save The Children’s James Denselow, who shockingly called Burt’s resignation “a loss to Middle East diplomacy.” Never has Mark Curtis’s concept of “Unpeople” been so apt: “the modern equivalent of the ‘savages’ of colonial days, who could be mown down by British guns in virtual secrecy, or else in circumstances where the perpetrators were hailed as the upholders of civilisation.”

As the American historian Howard Zinn once noted “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 January 2019

In his new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, Dr David Wearing observes: “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule” in the Arabian Gulf.

With the Morning Star’s Phil Miller recently writing a couple of exposes of the UK’s military involvement in Oman it is worth taking time to explore the British government’s wider relationship with the so-called “sleepy sultanate” in more detail.

Since signing an “assistance” treaty with Oman in 1798 — its first in the region — Britain has played the role of imperial overseer to the country. British historian Mark Curtis notes the “extremely repressive” regime of Sultan Said bin Taimur from 1932-70 “was in effect run by the British.”

Britons served as commanders of the armed forces, ministers for financial affairs, foreign affairs and petroleum affairs, as well as the director of intelligence, Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

However, with the country in the midst of civil war, by 1970 the Sultan had come to be seen as an unreliable and weak leader by the British, who helped to overthrow him in a palace coup.

For his troubles he was settled in the Dorchester Hotel back in London, where he died two years later. His own son, the modernising Qaboos, was installed in his place, and 49 years later he still rules Oman, making him the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world.

As this longevity suggests, Oman is an absolute monarchy, in which “nearly all power remains with the monarch,” according to University of Exeter’s Dr Marc Valeri, an expert on Oman.

Qaboos “concurrently holds the positions of prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, chairman of the central bank, and minister of defence, foreign affairs, and finance,” Valeri notes in a 2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report.

Political parties are banned and press freedom is severely curtailed.

With Qaboos presenting Oman as an oasis of stability in a volatile region, one intellectual provided important context when interviewed by Valeri in 2012: “Omanis were not silent by choice … rather they were silenced by the regime. The Omani population was very quiet because of repression and fear: ‘Don’t talk about politics: you will be taken behind the sun’!”

As this quote intimates, the relationship between ruler and ruled has started to shift in recent years, with more Omanis publicly criticising their government.

In 2010 an online petition was submitted to Qaboos pushing for “widespread reforms, such as a new constitution that would lead to a parliamentary monarchy,” Valeri writes.

Inspired by the Arab Spring protests rocking the rest of the Arab world, in early 2011 (largely peaceful) demonstrations occurred in several cities in Oman.

Though the protesters’ key demands centred on improved job opportunities, increased wages and an end to rampant corruption, there were also calls for political reform, including giving more power to the elected Consultative Council, increased independence for the judiciary and a free and open media.

Smaller in size than in many other Arab nations, the demonstrations in Oman nevertheless forced significant, though limited, concessions from the regime, such as an increase in the minimum wage, the creation of 50,000 jobs, the firing of several ministers and a small increase in the powers of the Consultative Council.

However, along with the carrot, Qaboos also made good use of the stick, with Valeri noting: “Several hundred protesters, journalists, and human rights activists were arrested all over the country.”

After 2011 the repression increased, Valeri noted in 2015. “Oman’s overly broad laws restrict the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association,” Human Rights Watch summarises on its website today.

“The authorities target peaceful activists, pro-reform bloggers, and government critics using short-term arrests and detentions and other forms of harassment.”

The British government, so keen to highlight human rights abuses carried out by governments in “enemy” states such as Libya and Syria, has, as far as I can tell, been completely silent about the protests and government crackdown in Oman.

How do I know? After a fruitless search of its website, I asked the Foreign Office and Commonwealth (FCO) press office to confirm whether the British government has made any public statements since 2010 about human rights in Oman.

It has been unable to point to any such statement, claiming there are too many statements to search through to know.

This silence is unsurprising, when one considers Britain’s deep geostrategic and economic interests in maintaining the status quo in Oman: along with Iran, Oman is situated beside “the world’s most important chokepoint for oil, the Strait of Hormuz, which is the conduit for about 40 per cent of the crude [oil] traded internationally,” Bloomberg recently reported.

Britain has recently announced the opening of two new military bases in Oman — the Duqm Port complex and a “joint training base,” the latter announced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in November.

With the latter able to accommodate submarines and Britain’s new aircraft carriers, the bases are part of a broader military engagement with the Gulf, allowing Britain to more effectively project military power in the resource-rich region.

For example, during the 2001 US and British-led invasion of Afghanistan, Oman “provided crucial logistics and base facilities for British forces,” Curtis explains.

We have the US whistleblower Edward Snowden to thank for revealing another reason for Britain’s enduring interest in Oman — files he leaked in 2013 show Britain has a secret network of three spy bases in Oman which tap into the undersea fibreoptic cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

These intelligence facilities “intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic,” information which is “then shared with the National Security Agency in the United States,” Curtis explained in a 2016 article for the Huffington Post.

There is concern amongst the Omani population about their government’s close relationship to Britain and the US.

Valeri refers to “online writers and protesters who openly criticised the ruler’s practices” such as “his proximity to British and US interests” being “quickly arrested and condemned to jail” after the 2011 protests.

Indeed, Britain is directly involved in the repression of domestic opposition in Oman.

“British police officers have trained members of Oman’s Special Forces, police and military in ‘public order’ tactics since 2014 as part of a controversial $1.2m security and justice project,” the Middle East Eye reported in 2017.

It turns out the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been instructing the Omani authorities in “how to deal with strikes and stifle protests under a Foreign Office-funded project.”

Having fled Oman in 2013 after being repeatedly arrested, Omani human rights campaigner Khalfan al-Badwawi told the Middle East Eye “Britain’s military relationship with Oman” is “a major obstacle to human rights campaigners in Oman because of the military and intelligence support from London that props up the Sultan’s dictatorship.”

Nabhan Alhanshi, who fled Oman in 2012 and is now the director of an organisation looking at human rights in his home country, concurs.

“We in the Omani Centre for Human Rights believe that the British negligence of the human rights situations in Oman encourages the Omani government to commit more violations,” he told me.

With the mainstream media unwilling to report on this issue, the left in Britain has a key role to play in highlighting Britain’s forgotten friendship with the autocracy in Oman.

Like the anti-war movement did in Iraq and Afghanistan, progressives need to make concrete links of with pro-democracy activists and organisations in Oman and the rest of the Gulf monarchies.

With the British government’s support for Qaboos’s dictatorial rule as strong as ever, this population-to-population solidarity is one way Britons can help to build the more democratic, free and equal Oman that many Omanis have been working towards for so long.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department

The original Fake News? The BBC and the Information Research Department
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 January 2019

Last month Ritula Shah presented a BBC World Service discussion programme titled Is ‘Fake News’ A Threat To Democracy? Predictably the debate focused on Russian attempts to influence Western populations and political systems.

Asked whether the US has been involved in similar activities, Dr Kathleen Bailey, a senior figure in the US State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the 1980s, was dismissive: “We [the US] certainly do not have a budget, bureaucracy or intellectual commitment to doing that kind of thing.”

Carl Miller, the Research Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos, also played down the West’s activities: “I think Western countries do do less of this as a kind of tool of foreign policy than autocracies”.

“Read real journalism” – presumably BBC journalism – was one of the guest’s suggestions for countering Fake News.

Putting this self-serving and self-congratulatory narrative to one side, it is worth considering the BBC’s, and particularly the BBC World Service’s, own relationship to the British government’s own propaganda.

“Directly funded by government [the Foreign Office], rather than the licence fee” the World Service is “deeply embedded in the foreign policy, security and intelligence apparatus of the British state”, Dr Tom Mills notes in his must-read 2016 book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.

In particular, the BBC had a very close relationship to the Information Research Department [IRD] – “a Foreign Office propaganda outfit which sought especially to foster anti-communist sentiments on the left”, explains Mills, a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at Aston University.

Set up in 1948, the IRD “was one of the largest and best-funded sections of the Foreign Office until it was discreetly shut down in 1977 on the orders of [then Foreign Secretary] David Owen”, investigative journalist Ian Cobain reported in the Guardian in July 2018. A 1963 Foreign Office review of IRD sets out the work of the covert unit: “The primary aim is unattributable propaganda through IRD outlets – eg in the press, the political parties… and a number of societies”.

Focusing on the Soviet Union and its supposed influence around the world, “IRD material poured into the BBC and was directed to news desks, talks writers and different specialist correspondents”, according to Paul Lashmar and James Oliver in Britain’s Secret Propaganda War, their 1998 history of the clandestine organisation. The programming of the BBC’s Overseas Service [which would change its name to the World Service in 1965] “was developed in close consultation with the Foreign Office and its information departments”, they highlight.

The BBC “were seemingly quite content to be directed by the FO [Foreign Office] as to how to deal with Middle Eastern personalities, and enquired whether it was desirable for them ‘to deal in a more or less bare-fisted manner with any of the leading statesmen (or their principle spokesmen)’”, notes Simon Collier in his 2013 PhD thesis on IRD and UK foreign policy. Infamously, the BBC played a key role in the US-UK assisted overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister in 1953, with the signal for the coup to begin arranged with the BBC. That day the corporation begun its Persian language news broadcast not with the usual “it is now midnight in London”, but instead with “it is now exactly midnight”, reveals historian Mark Curtis in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

When it came to nuclear war, the BBC was similarly careful about what was broadcast, effectively banning the dramatised documentary film War Game in 1965 (even though they had originally commissioned it). Discussing the film’s depiction of a nuclear attack on the UK, the Chairman of the BBC wrote to the Cabinet Secretary arguing that the “showing of the film on television might well have a significant effect on public attitudes towards the policy of the nuclear deterrent.”

Though formally concerned with foreign influence, IRD also took a close interest in UK domestic politics, including in the Northern Ireland conflict, aswell as carrying out campaigns against people they suspected were Communists and trade unionists. For example, writing in the Guardian last year Cobain reported “senior figures in Harold Wilson’s Labour government plotted to use a secret Foreign Office propaganda unit [IRD] to smear a number of leftwing trade union leaders”, including Jack Jones, the General-Secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union. In the same report Cobain highlights a letter the BBC Director General wrote to IRD in 1974 asking for a briefing on “subversives” working in broadcasting. This, it seems likely, was a complement to the wider political vetting the BBC undertook, with the help of MI5, between the 1930s and 1985. Communists and members of the Socialist Worker’s Party and Militant Tendency were barred from key positions at the BBC, or denied promotion if they were already working for the corporation, according to a memo from 1984, with an image reassembling a Christmas tree added to the personnel files of individuals under suspicion.

It is important to understand the relationship between the BBC and IRD and the wider British state was kept deliberately vague, a quintessential British fudge of formal and informal connections and influence. “Many of the executives of the BBC had gone to the same public schools, and inevitably Oxbridge, with their Foreign Office colleagues”, note Lashmar and Oliver. “Both were part of the establishment, attending the same gentleman’s clubs and having an implicit understanding of what constituted the national interest.”

Cutting through this fog, Mills provides a concise summary: “During the Cold War period the BBC was… distributing propaganda material in close cooperation with the British state”. However, he is keen to highlight that though “there is a temptation to view all this as merely a feature of the Cold War… there is no good reason to think that there is not still significant collusion”.

He quotes Dr Emma Briant, who notes in her 2015 book Propaganda and Counter-Terrorism the BBC Director General receives direct briefings from the UK intelligence services “on the right line to take on whether something is in the national and operational interest to broadcast.”

Indeed, out of all the UK broadcasters’ coverage of the Iraq War, the BBC was revealed to by the most sympathetic to the government, according to a 2003 study led by Professor Justin Lewis from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism. Defending the BBC’s reporting in a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair in 2003, then BBC Director General Greg Dyke noted he had “set up a committee… which insisted that we had to find a balanced audience for programmes like Question Time at a time when it was very hard to find supporters of the war willing to come on.” The same committee “when faced with a massive bias against the war among phone-in callers, decided to increase the number of phone lines so that pro-war listeners had a better chance of getting through and getting onto the programmes”, Dyke explained. This “was done in an attempt to ensure our coverage was balanced”, Dyke wrote, apparently with a straight face.

Moreover, academic studies on issues such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and the financial crisis shows the BBC has tended to reflect “the ideas and interests of elite groups, and marginalised alternative and oppositional perspectives”, to quote Mills on the BBC’s overall journalistic output.

Turning to contemporary politics, in 2016 Sir Michael Lyons, the former Chair of the BBC Trust, raised concerns about the corporation’s coverage of new Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “I can understand why people are worried about whether some of the most senior editorial voices in the BBC have lost their impartiality on this”, he noted.

As is often the case, a careful reading of establishment sources can provide illumination about what is really going on. Concerned about the government proposed cuts to the World Service, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee highlighted the propaganda role of the BBC in 2014: “We believe that it would not be in the interests of the UK for the BBC to lose sight of the priorities of the FCO, which relies upon the World Service as an instrument of ‘soft power’.”

Fake News indeed.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis

Britain’s collusion with radical Islam: Interview with Mark Curtis
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
20 March 2018

A former Research Fellow at Chatham House and the ex-Director of the World Development Movement, British historian Mark Curtis has published several books on UK foreign policy, including 2003’s Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World, endorsed by Noam Chomsky and John Pilger. Ian Sinclair asked Curtis about the recently published new edition of his 2010 book Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam.

Ian Sinclair: With the so-called ‘war on terror’ the dominant framework for understanding Western foreign policy since 9/11, the central argument of your book – that Britain has been colluding with radical Islam for decades – will be a huge shock to many people. Can you give some examples?

Mark Curtis: UK governments – Conservative and Labour – have been colluding for decades with two sets of Islamist actors which have strong connections with each other. In the first group are the major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism, the two most important of which are key British allies with whom London has long-standing strategic partnerships – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. The second group includes extremist private movements and organisations whom Britain has worked alongside and sometimes trained and financed, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. The roots of this lie in divide and rule policies under colonialism but collusion of this type took off in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Britain, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supported the resistance to defeat the Soviet occupation of the country. After the jihad in Afghanistan, Britain had privy dealings of one kind or another with militants in various organisations, including Pakistan’s Harkat ul-Ansar, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), all of which had strong links to Bin Laden’s al-Qaida. Covert actions have been undertaken with these and other forces in Central Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe.

For example, in the 1999 Kosovo war, Britain secretly trained militants in the KLA who were working closely with al-Qaida fighters. One KLA unit was led by the brother of Ayman al-Zawahiri, then Bin Laden’s right-hand man. The British provided military training for the KLA at secret camps in Kosovo and Albania where jihadist fighters also had their military centre. The ‘dirty secret’ of the July 2005 London bombings is that the bombers had links with violent Islamist groups such as the Harkat ul-Mujahidin whose militants were previously covertly supported by Britain in Afghanistan. These militant groups were long sponsored by the Pakistani military and intelligence services, in turn long armed and trained by Britain. If we go back further – to the 1953 MI6/CIA coup to overthrow Musaddiq in Iran – this involved plotting with Shia Islamists, the predecessors of Ayatollah Khomeini. Ayatollah Seyyed Kashani – who in 1945 founded the Fadayan-e-Islam (Devotees of Islam), a militant fundamentalist organization – was funded by Britain and the US to organise opposition and arrange public demonstrations against Musaddiq.

More recently, in its military interventions and covert operations in Syria and Libya since 2011, Britain and its supported forces have been working alongside, and often in effective collaboration with, a variety of extremist and jihadist groups, including al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria. Indeed, the vicious Islamic State group and ideology that has recently emerged partly owes its origins and rise to the policies of Britain and its allies in the region

Although Britain has forged special relationships with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, it has not been in strategic alliance with radical Islam as such. Beyond these two states, Britain’s policy has been to collaborate with Islamist extremists as a matter of ad hoc opportunism, though it should be said that this has been rather regular. Whitehall does not work with these forces because it agrees with them but because they are useful at specific moments: in this sense, the collaboration highlights British weakness to find other on-the-ground foot soldiers to impose its policies. Islamist groups appear to have collaborated with Britain for the same reasons of expediency and because they share the same hatred of popular nationalism and secularism as the British elite.

IS: Why has the UK colluded with radical Islamic organisations and nations?

MC: I argue that the evidence shows that radical Islamic forces have been seen as useful to Whitehall in five specific ways: as a global counter-force to the ideologies of secular nationalism and Soviet communism, in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan; as ‘conservative muscle’ within countries to undermine secular nationalists and bolster pro-Western regimes; as ‘shock troops’ to destabilise or overthrow governments; as proxy military forces to fight wars; and as ‘political tools’ to leverage change from governments.

This collusion has also helped promote two big geo-strategic foreign policy objectives. The first is influence and control over key energy resources, always recognised in the British planning documents as the number one priority in the Middle East. British operations to support or side with Islamist forces have generally aimed at maintaining in power or installing governments that will promote Western-friendly oil policies. The second objective has been maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order. The Saudis have invested billions of dollars in the US and British economies and banking systems and Britain and the US have similarly large investments and trade with Saudi Arabia; it is these that are being protected by the strategic alliance with Riyadh.

IS: You include a chapter in the new edition of the book exploring the UK and West’s role in Syria. Simon Tisdall recently noted in The Observer that the West has been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria”. This is a common view – including on the Left. For example, in September 2014 Richard Seymour asserted “The US has not been heavily involved” in Syria, while in February 2017 Salvage magazine published a piece by Dr Jamie Allinson, who argued it was a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change” in Syria. What is your take on the West’s involvement in Syria?

MC: These are extraordinary comments revealing how poorly the mainstream media serves the public. I’ve tried to document in the updated version of Secret Affairs a chronology of Britain’s covert operations in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime. These began with the deployment of MI6 and other British covert forces in 2011, within a few months after demonstrations in Syria began challenging the regime, to which the Syrian regime responded with brute force and terrible violence. British covert action, mainly undertaken in alliance with the US and Saudi Arabia, has involved working alongside radical and jihadist groups, in effect supporting and empowering them. These extremist groups, which cultivated Muslim volunteers from numerous countries to fight Assad, have been strengthened by an influx of a massive quantity of arms and military training from the coalition of forces of which Britain has been a key part. At the same time, Britain and its allies’ policy has prolonged the war, exacerbating devastating human suffering.

UK support for Syrian rebel groups long focused on the Free Syrian Army (FSA), described by British officials as ‘moderates’. Yet for the first three years of the war, the FSA was in effect an ally of, and collaborator with, Islamic State and al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, al-Nusra. London and Washington continued to provide training and help send arms into Syria despite the certainty that some would end up in the hands of jihadists. Some of the militants who joined the Syrian insurgency with British covert support were Libyans who are believed to have been trained by British, French or US forces in Libya to overthrow Qadafi in 2011. Some went on to join Islamic State and also al-Nusra, which soon became one of the most powerful opposition groups to Assad.

Britain appears to have played a key role in encouraging the creation of the Islamic Front coalition in Syria in November 2013, which included groups which regularly worked with al-Nusra; these included Liwa al-Tawhid – a group armed by Qatar and which coordinated attacks with al-Nusra – and Ahrar al-Sham – a hardline Islamist group that rejected the FSA. Both groups contained foreign jihadists, including individuals from Britain. Ahrar al-Sham’s co-founder, Abu Khalid al-Suri, was linked to the 2004 Madrid bombing through a series of money transfers and personal contacts; a Spanish court document named him as Bin Laden’s ‘courier’ in Europe. The same network was connected to the 2005 London terror attack.

The UK role in Syria has not been minor, but has been an integral part of the massive US/Arab arms and training operations, and British officials have been present in the control rooms for these operations in Jordan and Turkey. Britain also consistently took the lead in calling for further arms deliveries to the rebel forces. British covert action was in the early years of the war overwhelmingly focused on overthrowing Assad: evidence suggests that only in May 2015 did UK covert training focus on countering Islamic State in Syria.

IS: What role has the mainstream media played with regards to Britain working with radical Islam?

MC: It has largely buried it. In the period immediately after the 7/7 bombings in 2005, and more recently in the context of the wars in Libya and Syria, there were sporadic reports in the mainstream media which revealed links between the British security services and Islamist militants living in Britain. Some of these individuals have been reported as working as British agents or informers while being involved in terrorism overseas and some have been reported as being protected by the British security services while being wanted by foreign governments. This is an important but only a small part of the much bigger picture of collusion which mainly concerns Britain’s foreign policy: this is rarely noticed in the mainstream.

IS: The British public and the anti-war movement are not mentioned in your book, though they seem a potentially important influence on the nefarious and dangerous British foreign policies you highlight?

MC: Yes, it’s largely down to us, the British public, to prevent terrible policies being undertaken in our name. We should generally regard the British elite as it regards the public – as a threat to its interests. The biggest immediate single problem we face, in my view, is mainstream media reporting. While large sections of the public are deluged with misreporting, disinformation or simply the absence of coverage of key policies, there may never be a critical mass of people prepared to take action in their own interests to bring about a wholly different foreign policy. The mainstream media and propaganda system has been tremendously successful in the UK – the public can surely have very little knowledge of the actual nature of British foreign policy (past or present) and many people, apparently, seriously believe that the country generally (although it may make some mistakes) stands for peace, democracy and human rights all over the world. When you look at what they read (and don’t read) in the ‘news’ papers, it’s no surprise. The latest smears against Corbyn are further evidence of this, which I believe amounts to a ‘system’, since it is so widespread and rooted in the same interests of defending elite power and privilege.

The other, very much linked, problem, relates to the lack of real democracy in the UK and the narrow elitist decision-making in foreign policy. Governments retain enormous power to conduct covert operations (and policies generally) outside of public or parliamentary scrutiny. Parliamentary committees, meant to scrutinise the state, rarely do so properly and almost invariably fail to even question government on its most controversial policies. Parliamentary answers are often misleading and designed to keep the public in the dark. Past historical records of government decision-making are regularly withheld from the public, if not destroyed to cover up crimes. British ‘democracy’, which exists in some forms, otherwise resembles more an authoritarian state.

There are fundamental issues here about how policy gets made and in whose name. It’s not an issue of whether Labour or Conservative is in power since both obviously defend and propagate the elitist system. Jeremy Corbyn himself represents a real break with this but the most likely outcome, tragically, is that the Labour extremists (called ‘moderates’ in the mainstream) and the rest of the conservative/liberal system which believes in militarism, neo-liberalism and the defence of privilege, will prevail if and when Corbyn becomes Prime Minister. The signs are already there in the Labour manifesto for the last election, which would have continued the present extremism in most aspects of UK foreign policy, even if it promised some change and still represented a major challenge to the establishment. Again, it will obviously be up to us to change policies, democratize the media and transform British governance more broadly.

Book review. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis

Book review. Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam by Mark Curtis
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
5 March 2018

Informed by months of research in the National Archives, this updated edition of Secret Affairs reconfirms the so-called war on terror the West has been waging since 9/11 “is a joke”, as British historian Mark Curtis argues.

Rather than the self-serving narrative endlessly repeated by Western governments and the credulous mainstream media, Curtis underlines how, in the pursuit of foreign policy and commercial interests, the UK has colluded with radical Islam for decades. UK support has gone to two sets of actors: major state sponsors of Islamist terrorism such as Pakistan and the theocratic monarchy in Saudi Arabia, and extremist movements and organisations. The UK’s relationship with the latter has tended to be “a matter of ad hoc opportunism”, Curtis notes, with Whitehall working with Islamist groups to counter what a Foreign Office official in the 1950s called the “virus of Arab Nationalism”. With this pan-Arab movement threatening the UK’s control over the Middle East’s vast energy reserves, the UK covertly connived with Islamist forces to overthrow the elected prime minister of Iran, aswell as attempting to bring down President Nasser in Egypt and the Syrian government.

First published in 2010, this new edition includes a welcome section on how the UK fought on the same side as radical Islamist forces in the 2011 NATO war to overthrow the Libyan government. Curtis also highlights how the UK has bolstered its “longstanding special relationship” with Saudi Arabia despite – or arguably because of – the Kingdom’s military intervention to prop up the Bahraini royal family in 2011, and its ravaging of Yemen over the past three years. Most devastating of all is the chapter on the UK-US intervention in Syria. According to The Observer’s Simon Tisdall the West has been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria”. In contrast, Curtis notes that “beginning in 2011, Britain embarked on covert operations to overthrow the Assad regime”, working closely with those great democrats the Saudis to arm the rebels, knowing that there was a good chance the arms would reach the Nusra Front – Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria.

Alongside Christopher Davidson’s 2016 book Shadow Wars, Curtis has written the most detailed and critical account of the West’s dangerous actions in Syria, which have both prolonged and escalated the conflict.

In a world full of Western government-created propaganda, Secret Affairs is absolutely essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the reality of UK foreign policy.

Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam is published by Serpent’s Tail, priced £10.99.

The dangers of short-term foreign policy thinking

The dangers of short-term foreign policy thinking
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 January 2018

From Iraq circa 2002-3, to Libya in 2011 and Syria today, influential liberal commentators including David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Paul Mason, Jonathan Freedland and many politicians have repeatedly pushed for Western military intervention. “Something must be done!” they shout from their newspaper columns. “We must act now before it is too late”, they warn in the House of Commons. One of the things that characterises these emotive and often simplistic calls for action are their narrow, laser-like focus on human rights abuses Western governments are publicly concerned about. Those who advise caution, critical thinking and a wider lens of analysis are often labelled naïve, or worse – apologists for the authoritarian leader in the West’s sights.

However, recent history shows this unwillingness to consider possible wider, long-term impacts of Western wars of choice has had grave consequences for the UK and the rest of the world.

Take NATO’s intervention in Kosovo in 1999, sold by Tony Blair’s government to the British public as a humanitarian intervention urgently needed to stop ethnic cleansing carried out by Serbian government forces.

“The liberal press – notably the Guardian and the Independent – backed the war to the hilt (while questioning the tactics used to wage it) and lent critical weight to the government’s arguments”, British historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role In The World. In addition, “the anti-war movement failed to mobilise beyond the political margins”, explained international relations specialist Dr Aidan Hehir in a 2009 Irish Times op-ed. David Aaronovitch, then at the Independent, proclaimed he would fight if asked by the government, while Andrew Marr writing in the Observer put forward “the Macbeth option: which is that we’re so steeped in blood we should go further” and “put in ground troops.”

With Tony Blair basking in the liberal media’s adoration after playing a leading role in the military campaign that pushed Serb forces out of Kosovo in June 1999, it is worth considering some of the longer term ramifications of NATO’s intervention.

It is clear the war’s perceived success (rejected by Curtis and US dissident Noam Chomsky) emboldened Blair, likely increasing his messianic tendencies, which many believed played a crucial role in the invasion of Iraq four years later. “It may well be he was actually drunk on his self-importance having had successes in Kosovo and Sierra Leone”, Colonel Tim Collins, a senior figure in the army in 2003, commented when the Chilcot Inquiry published its findings. “He genuinely believed he could do no wrong.” Iain Duncan Smith came to a similar conclusion when he recounted a September 2002 meeting he had with Blair to Andrew Rawnsley for his 2010 book The End Of The Party. “He’d decided this was a successful formula. He’d done Kosovo. He’d done Afghanistan. It was what he believed in”, said the Tory Party leader at the time of the Iraq invasion.

Writing in the Financial Times in 2007, Quentin Peel makes the obvious connection: “Kosovo was… a crucial moment in the development of the international vision… that eventually led to [Blair’s] backing for the US-led invasion of Iraq.” An invasion, let’s not forget, that was not authorised by the United Nations – just as the Kosovo intervention was also not backed by the UN. As the title of Dr Hehir’s Irish Times piece argued: NATO’s ‘Good War’ In Kosovo Degraded International Law.

There are other important links to the race to war in 2003. “It was during the [Kosovo] war… that Blair and Campbell hones their PR machine and Blair’s image as a humanitarian leader”, asserted former International Development Secretary Clare Short in her 2004 book An Honourable Deception? Noting how the Foreign Office had been sidelined in 1999, writing in International Affairs journal Dr Oliver Daddow argued Kosovo was the point when Blair confirmed “that he did not need to rely on Whitehall’s decision-making machinery for ideas or strategy”.

The 2011 NATO war in Libya has also had a number of influential effects on subsequent conflicts.

Backed by around 97 percent of British MPs and much of the liberal commentariat, the UK intervention was given legal cover by the passing of UN Security Council resolution 1973, which authorised “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya.

Though the resolution did not refer to regime change – illegal under international law – the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s examination of the intervention in 2016 concluded the “limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means”.

Soon after Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was forced out of Tripoli, David Cameron and French President Nicholas Sarkozy made a triumphalist, political capital-boosting visit to the country in September 2011 (or so they thought). Russia, on the other hand, took an entirely different lesson from the war.

Quoting a senior Obama Administration official as saying President Putin is “obsessed” by the NATO-enabled overthrow and death of Gaddafi, Julia Ioffe recently argued in The Atlantic magazine that “regime change in Libya and Ukraine led to Russia propping up Bashar al-Assad in Syria.” Ioffe goes on to quote former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff as characterising Putin’s approach to Syria as “Not one more.”

A 2011 BBC article titled Why China And Russia Rebuffed The West On Syria confirms this thesis. “Libya is perhaps the prime reason” behind Russia’s vetoes at the UN on Syria, Jonathan Marcus notes. “Both the Chinese and Russian governments seem to think that the West took advantage of [UN] resolution [1973] to intervene militarily in a Libyan civil war” and carry out regime change, he notes. “They are determined not to allow any similar resolution to go forward [on Syria]”.

NATO’s intervention in Libya also had an important influence on the Syrian rebels fighting to overthrow the Assad government. Writing about the UN’s mediation efforts in the Syrian crisis, the academics Raymond Hinnebusch and William Zartman refer to “the opposition’s unrealistic expectations” of the peace process in 2012: “During a visit to a Free Syrian Army unit, one UN official found that the Libyan precedent and anti-Assad Western rhetoric had convinced opposition fighters that NATO was going to intervene on their behalf”. According to the UN official, this was “not conducive to… serious engagement.” In his 2017 book The Battle For Syria: International Rivalry In The New Middle East, Chatham House’s Dr Christopher Phillips highlights a similar dynamic with the opposition’s regional supporters in 2012: “Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey were convinced both that Assad was close to falling and that eventually the US would intervene as it had in Libya, and so saw no need to compromise.”

The Libyan intervention, then, was one of the reasons behind Russia’s large, obstructive role in Syria, and the decision by some opposition groups to shun negotiations aiming to end the war – two of the many reasons why the horrific conflict continues today.

So it goes. The ongoing North Korean crisis is inexorably linked with these events in the Middle East. “North Korea learned from Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s mistake was he did not possess the weapons of mass destruction he was falsely accused of having. Libya taught a similar lesson”, Professor John Delury, a North Korean expert at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies, told the BBC in 2016. According to a 2017 Guardian report, North Korean “state media frequently refers to their [Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein] demise as proof that the US wolves are now at North Korea’s door.”

What these three examples show is that beyond the immediate crisis, Western military interventions have – often predictable – serious and widespread knock-on impacts that have been disastrous for the British public and the wider world. Not to say anything about how the interventions often undermine the UK government’s own interests and policy goals – Russia’s response to the Libyan intervention worked against UK policy goals in Syria, for example.

We desperately need more critical and long-term thinking when the government tries, as it inevitably will, to gain public support for its next foreign war. Rebuilding and maintaining a popular and powerful anti-war movement is an essential first step to achieving this.

A behind-the-scenes battle over Labour’s foreign policy

A behind-the-scenes battle over Labour’s foreign policy
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
9 January 2018

Since Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party in September 2015, Emily Thornberry has been one of his key allies.

After serving as the shadow secretary of state for defence and shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union, Thornberry has been shadow foreign secretary since June 2016.

The Islington South and Finsbury MP has proven to be an effective politician, gaining plaudits for her performance at the dispatch box standing in for Corbyn at Prime Minister’s Questions and for ambushing Tory minister Michael Fallon on The Andrew Marr Show about the time he attended a reception with Bashar al-Assad to celebrate the Syrian president winning an election.

However, though they have largely been ignored by Labour supporters and left-wing commentators, Thornberry’s comments last year about Israel are very concerning.

Speaking at a November Jewish News/Bicom Balfour 100 event, she noted Israel “still stands out as a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy, particular in respect of women and LGBT communities, in a region where oppression, discrimination and inequality is too often the norm.”

A December speech she gave at the Labour Friends of Israel annual dinner “could have been written by a pro-Israel lobbyist,” argued Asa Winstanley from Electronic Intifada.

Her statement that it was Israeli “pioneers … who made the deserts bloom” repeated one of the founding and “racist myth[s]” of Israel, Winstanley went on to note.

Amazingly, at the end of the speech she described the former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres as “a hero of the left, of the state of Israel and of the cause of peace.”

In contrast, in 2005, US dissident Noam Chomsky called Peres “an iconic mass murderer,” presumably for his role in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians that led to the creation of Israel and for being head of government when Israel shelled a United Nations compound in Lebanon in 1996, killing over 100 civilians.

After conducting an investigation, Amnesty International concluded the attack was intentional.

In both speeches Thornberry highlighted the denial of rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories, which makes her statement about Israel being “a beacon of freedom, equality and democracy” all the more laughable.

As the title of a 2015 article in the Independent newspaper by the academic Yara Hawari explained, “Israel is supposedly the only democracy in the Middle East, yet 4.5 million Palestinians under its control can’t vote.”

“The everyday lives of Palestinians [in the West Bank] is controlled by the IOF [Israeli Occupation Forces]. And it is done brutally,” Hawari noted.

“Movement is rigidly controlled, access to resources is denied and Israeli military incursions into villages and towns are frequent.

“Palestinians see violent settler rampages on a daily basis, which often involve the burning of agricultural land and physical assaults on anyone who gets in their way.”

Famously, former US president Jimmy Carter labelled the Israeli occupation an example of “apartheid.”

Michael Lynk, the UN rapporteur for human rights in the occupied territories, recently noted the “suffocating economic and travel blockade” Israel maintains “has driven Gaza back to the dark ages,” with “more than 60 per cent of the population of Gaza … reliant upon humanitarian aid.”

Israel is a “settler colonial state that flouts international law on a daily basis by oppressing the Palestinians in varying states of occupation,” Hawari concluded.

“And it does so with European and American complicity. The shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East? Far from it.”

Thornberry’s remarks aren’t that surprising if you consider her political career.

Until Corbyn won the Labour leadership, her politics and voting record fit comfortably with the more liberal, often interventionist, section of the British Establishment.

She was, as the New Statesman reported in 2016, “one of [Ed] Miliband’s inner circle.” As shadow attorney general, she voted for Britain’s disastrous military intervention in Libya in 2011 and, in 2014, for Britain to conduct air strikes on Isis in Iraq.

Turning to domestic politics, she abstained on the 2013 vote about the coalition government’s Workfare programme, the scheme in which people on Jobseeker’s Allowance are forced to carry out unpaid work in order to keep receiving their benefits.

And she abstained again on the 2015 vote for the Welfare Bill, which leaked government figures showed would push 40,000 more children below the poverty line. As Tony Benn used to say, politicians can be divided into two categories, signposts and weathercocks.

Thornberry’s politics are important because, as Dr David Wearing noted last year, the “anti-militarist and anti-imperialist” Corbyn “has a real chance of being our next prime minister.”

“Not only is that new in Britain, I think it’s new internationally,” the teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, explained in a Media Democracy podcast.

“I can’t think of any time in the last several decades where it has been a realistic possibility that the leader of a UN security council permanent member, a great power, a great capitalist Western power, could be in the next few years an anti-militarist and an anti-imperialist. I don’t think there is a precedent for that. So it’s really huge. It’s a challenge to the foreign policy elite, it’s a challenge to conventional wisdom.”

At the same time, writing in June 2017, British historian Mark Curtis noted that, although Labour’s general election manifesto made “several clear breaks from current UK foreign policy,” there was also evidence that, “if the manifesto is implemented in its current form, it is likely to still promote extremism in UK foreign policy” (Curtis considers much of Britain’s bipartisan post-1945 foreign policy to be extreme).

Curtis highlights pledges to “support development and innovation” in the defence industry and maintain the Tories’ 2 per cent military spending commitment, along with half-hearted statements on the so-called “special relationship” with the US, international development and Israel-Palestine.

Incidentally, Curtis described Thornberry’s “positioning” on foreign affairs in an October 2017 interview she did with Middle East Eye as “basically Blairite.”

There is, then, a battle over the nature of Labour’s foreign policy — not least over Trident nuclear weapons — within the Parliamentary Labour Party, of course, but also within the shadow cabinet and probably within Corbyn’s core circle itself.

This ongoing struggle probably provides the context behind the Guardian’s recent feature-length interview with Thornberry, with the liberal organ taking the unusual step of advertising the interview over a week before it appeared in the newspaper.

Why? As the interviewer noted, Thornberry is “widely tipped to be the party’s next leader,” but after Corbyn led Labour’s extraordinary general election campaign, direct assaults on his leadership, like the attempted coup in 2016, are no longer viable.

The Guardian’s promotion of Thornberry may well herald a switch to a subtler, longer-term strategy that looks ahead to the next Labour leadership contest.

After all, Jezza isn’t getting any younger. Thornberry is the perfect candidate for Guardian “centrist” types who would like to neuter Corbynism — someone who can gain the backing of significant numbers of Corbyn supporters while at the same time diluting the movement’s relative radicalism by returning the Labour Party to safer, Establishment-friendly ground.

With all this in mind, it is important that all those who want to see an anti-imperialist, humane and sane British foreign policy raise their voices against Thornberry when she glosses over Israel’s abysmal human rights record and tacks too closely to the Establishment line.

The basic tenets of Labour’s foreign policy need to be argued about, settled and publicised right now, rather than being fought over in office under intense pressure from the media, military and opposing political parties.

Remaining silent — perhaps in the belief that criticising Thornberry will weaken Corbyn — is surely short-term politicking that will only increase the chances of Corbyn’s Labour Party disappointing if it gains power.