Tag Archives: Mark Curtis

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 July 2017

In May 2017 the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations published a report titled The Middle East: Time for New Realism. The group who compiled the report include ex-foreign policy advisers to William Hague and Gordon Brown, former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Reid and Lord Hannay, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations from 1990-95.

Some people on the left are dismissive of establishment sources. This is a shame because they can be very useful, so are worth reading carefully if one has the time. For example, the 116-page report contains original testimony from high level policymakers, giving a rare insight into elite thinking. US dissident Noam Chomsky has a similar view of the business press, arguing “it is useful to read what the ruling class tells its people… they tend to be more honest, because they are talking to people they don’t have to worry about, and to people who need to know the truth so that they can go out and make decisions”. Select committees also attract some of the best experts on the topic under consideration. As a consequence, reports such as this are considered trustworthy and credible by many, especially the establishment itself, so are useful to cite to back up one’s argument in any debate.

The report starts by noting “The UK has critical interests in the region, both economic and security”. With the stability of the oil and gas markets having a direct impact on global economic prosperity, it explains “the interest for the UK in Middle East energy remains in securing stability of global oil supplies through the Gulf and securing its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies.” Stewart Williams, Vice-President of the energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, explains that over half of the UK’s gas is now imported, of which around a third comes from Qatar.

The region’s energy resources have long been a central geopolitical interest of the West, with the US State Department noting at the end of the Second World War that Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies were “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

“British commercial interests in the region are sizeable”, the report continues, noting trade in goods and services between the UK and the Middle East amounts to approximately £18.9 billion, with the Gulf states accounting for around £16 billion of this. “Above all, the Middle East dominates the UK defence export market and is the largest regional importer of British defence services and equipment”, the select committee says.

Neil Crompton, Director of Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), notes these security and commercial interests “draw us towards more engagement” with the region.  This euphemistic description is clarified later in the report when Hayder al-Khoei, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, explains the UK “gives almost unconditional support” to its Gulf Arab allies. And we have no bigger Gulf Arab ally than the theocratic monarchy Saudi Arabia, who the UK has been supporting in its bombing of Yemen “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, according to the UK foreign secretary in 2015. The report notes that in January 2016 a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen estimated that 60 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen were caused by air-launched explosive weapons, with “air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”, including refugee camps, weddings, residential areas, medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets and food storage warehouses.

“The UN has warned that Yemen is on the brink of a famine, with children paying the heaviest price”, the report notes. As of 6 July 1,600 Yemenis had died from cholera, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Invited to give evidence to the select committee, the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain maintains the UK’s support for the Saudi-led bombing has “likely extended the conflict and deepened UK complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe”. Moreover, the report goes on to note “The conflict in Yemen has jeopardised UK development work in the region”, with the Department for International Development forced to suspend its development programme in the country.

Discussing broader developments since the 2011 uprisings, Dr Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, notes that the UK has supported counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain. The UK’s “supposed support of democracy… would be strongly challenged by many people” in the region, he argues. Antoun Issa from the Middle East Institute builds on Davidson’s testimony, explaining that a “large source of anti-Americanism (and anti-UK sentiment as an extension) stems from a region-wide perception that Western powers underwrite the regional autocratic order”.

Turning to the future, the selection committee believe that post-Brexit the UK government will seek “to deepen its security and trade relations with the Gulf states” with “the UK’s dependence on arms exports… likely to increase”. Worryingly, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House think-tank, explains that Gulf nations will see that the “UK needs new friends or renewed relationships with old friends” and consider British policy to be “more malleable and susceptible to influence”.

It gets worse. In a section titled Dilemma of Democracy Promotion the report argues “In the long term, in a more pacific context, the aim would be to actively encourage more democracy; but that is not the situation we find ourselves in. The priority is now to encourage efforts at stabilising the region.” There is that word again – “stability”. In a recently compiled list of Common Terms Used by the Elite to Mislead the Public British historian Mark Curtis argues the actual meaning of “stability” is “repression by Western-backed governments.” The report shows that Curtis is right on the money, when it explains the UK’s support for “the stability offered by hereditary family rulers” in the Gulf means it has “undergirded a system of authoritarianism.”

The dire ramifications of this shameful policy are inadvertently made clear by Neil Crompton from the FCO. The “underlying causes” of the Arab spring, including “the sense of economic disempowerment” among young people “have not really been addressed by any of the governments in the region”, he notes. So, contrary to the mainstream media’s framing of the West being interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East, a careful reading of the House of Lords report highlights a far more uncomfortable reality: that UK’s foreign policy plays a role in stifling popular movements that are trying to throw off the shackles of their authoritarian and unelected rulers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*An edited version of this review appears in Red Pepper

Why is the media ignoring leaked US government documents about Syria?

Why is the media ignoring leaked US government documents about Syria?
by Ian Sinclair
Originally published in The New Arab, and then censored
February 2017

Discussing Western reporting of the Syrian war, veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn recently noted “fabricated news and one-sided reporting have taken over the news agenda to a degree probably not seen since the First World War.” Professor Piers Robinson, Chair in Politics, Society and Political Journalism at the University of Sheffield, concurs, arguing “We must now seriously entertain the possibility that the war in Syria has involved similar, if not greater, levels of manipulation and propaganda than that which occurred in the case of the 2003 Iraq War”.

An incredibly complex and confusing conflict with hundreds of opposition groups and multiple external actors often keen to hide many of their actions, how can journalists and the public get an accurate understanding of what is happening in Syria?

As governments routinely use their public statements to deceive the public, traditionally leaked government documents have been seen as the gold standard of journalistic sources – a unique opportunity to see what those in power are really thinking and doing behind closed doors. “Policy-makers are usually frank about their real goals in the secret record”, notes British historian Mark Curtis in his book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses.

When it comes to Syria there have been a number of US government documents leaked about US policy in the region. However, though these disclosures were reported by the media at the time, they have been quickly forgotten and have not contributed to the dominant narrative that has built up about the conflict. As Professor Peter Kuznick noted about the American history he highlighted in The Untold History of the United States documentary series he co-wrote with director Oliver Stone, “the truth is that many of our ‘secrets’ have been hidden on the front page of the New York Times.”

For example, liberal journalists and commentators have repeatedly stated the US has, as Paul Mason wrote in the Guardian last year, “stood aloof from the Syrian conflict.” The leaked audio recording of a meeting between President Obama’s second Secretary of State John Kerry and Syrian opposition figures last year shows the opposite to be true. Challenged about the level of US support to the insurgency, Kerry turns to his aide and says: “I think we’ve been putting an extraordinary amount of arms in, haven’t we?” The aide agrees, noting “the armed groups in Syria get a lot of support.”

Amazingly, before noting the US had sent an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the rebels, Kerry tells the activists “we can always throw a lot of weapons in but I don’t think they are going to be good for you” because “everyone ups the ante” leading to “you all [getting] destroyed”. This explanation of the logic of escalation is repeated later in the meeting by Kerry’s aide, who notes “when you pump more weapons into a situation like Syria it doesn’t end well for Syrians because there is always somebody else willing to pump more weapons in for the other side.”

A classified 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report, published by the right-wing watchdog Judicial Watch, provides important context to Kerry’s remarks. In the heavily redacted document the DIA — the intelligence arm of the US Department of Defense — notes “the Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria” and “The West, Gulf countries and Turkey support the opposition”. Speaking at a 2013 Jewish United Fund Advance & Major Gifts Dinner – the transcript of which was published by Wikileaks – former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirmed that US ally Saudi Arabia “and others are shipping large amounts of weapons—and pretty indiscriminately—not at all targeted toward the people that we think would be the more moderate, least likely, to cause problems in the future.”

It gets worse. Discussing the crisis, the DIA report notes “There is the possibility of [the opposition] establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist Principality in Eastern Syria… and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime”.

This appalling revelation was seemingly confirmed by General Michael T Flynn, the Director of the DIA from 2012-14 (and now National Security Advisor to President Trump), in a 2015 interview with Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan – and also, it seems, by Kerry when he told the Syrian activists:

The reason Russia came in [to the conflict] is because ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] was getting stronger. Daesh [another name for ISIL] was threatening the possibility of going to Damascus and so forth… And we know that this was growing. We were watching. We saw that Daesh was growing in strength. And we though Assad was threatened. We thought, however, we could probably manage – you know, that Assad might then negotiate, but instead of negotiating he got Putin to support him.

In summary, the leaked information wholly contradicts the popular picture of Western benevolent intentions let down by President Obama’s ineffective leadership and inaction. Instead the evidence shows the US has been sending an “extraordinary amount” of weapons to the armed insurgents in Syria in the full knowledge that Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and al-Qaida in Iraq were the “major forces” driving the insurgency. They did this understanding that sending in weapons would escalate the fighting and not “end well for Syrians”. Furthermore, the US has long known that its regional ally Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been supporting extremists in Syria. And, most shocking of all if true, both Kerry and the DIA report seem to show the US allowed forerunners to ISIL and/or ISIL itself to expand and threaten the Syrian Government as this corresponded with the US’s geo-strategic objectives.

More broadly, by highlighting how the US welcomed the growth of ISIL in Syria, the leaks fatally undermine the entire rationale of the ‘war on terror’ the West has supposedly been fighting since 2001. These are, in short, bombshells that should be front page news, with lengthy investigative follow ups and hundreds of op-eds outraged at the lies and hypocrisy of Western governments. Instead the disclosures have disappeared down the memory hole, with the ginormous gap between the importance of the revelations and the lack of coverage indicating a frighteningly efficient propaganda system.

There is one very important caveat. I’m not an expert on Syria or the Middle East. There could well be important context or information that I am ignorant of which provides a different take on the leaked material, that lessens its importance and, therefore, justifies why the media has largely ignored them.

Of course, the best way of confirming the accuracy and importance of the leaks is for the media to do its job and thoroughly investigate the disclosures, devote significant resources and manpower to the story and ask awkward and searching questions of established power.

I’m not holding my breath.

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview

What is the role of the West in the Middle East? Christopher Davidson interview
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
18 January 2017

A Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, in 2012 Dr Christopher Davidson published the best-seller After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.

Endorsed by John Pilger and Ilan Pappe, in his new book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East, Davidson turns his attention to the West’s often covert counter-revolutionary activities in the region.

Ian Sinclair: What have been the US and UK’s broad aims in the Middle East since World War Two?

Christopher Davidson: Although limping through World War Two as a technical victor, Britain’s surviving global empire was nonetheless in retreat.  With repeated uprisings and national liberation movements chipping away at overseas possessions, Whitehall officials and planners were already expert in devising strategies aimed at blocking or reversing indigenous challenges. But with increasingly resource-intensive heavy industries requiring vast imports of basic materials at a cheap and stable price from their remaining colonies and protectorates, such counter-revolutionary efforts had to become much more focused on what was now the greatest threat of all: economic nationalism. Certainly the enemy insurgents Britain was facing by the mid-twentieth century were no longer being measured by their ideology, religion, or barbarity, but quite clearly by their capacity to nationalize resources and industries or, at the very least, build states capable of demanding greater stakes in the local production of wealth.

Since its secret Sykes-Picot agreement with France that effectively carved up the territories of the crumbling Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War One, Britain’s grip over much of the Middle East had been more or less uncontested. But by the 1950s a potent pan-Arab movement was threatening to unseat remaining British client rulers in the region and jeopardize lucrative trade arrangements and control over valuable resources. With ‘classic nationalism [having become] impotent’ in the Middle East, as veteran correspondent Patrick Seale once described, many of the new ‘Arab nationalist’ revolts were effectively military operations, often led by army officers intent on forcibly removing foreign influences from their countries.

Despite some muted discomfort over Britain’s stance on Arab nationalism, the United States of the mid-twentieth century was nonetheless rapidly waking up to the demands of its own resource-hungry industries and the realities of its Cold War stalemate with the Soviet Union.  Ensuring vacuums left in the wake of the retrenching European empires were not filled by such antagonistic forces bent on nationalizing assets or – equally dangerously – liberation movements likely to align themselves with Soviet-sponsored international communism, the US government and its intelligence agencies soon found themselves at the very forefront of counter-revolutionary action, even surpassing the British. As Karl Korsch put it, the US may have been based on the ideals of revolutionary France, but by this stage it was fast losing its ‘capitalist infancy’.

Advancing into the void left by Britain’s retreat, and quickly overcoming their initial fence-sitting on Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt, by the mid-1950s US planners acknowledged that securing the Middle East, and especially the Persian Gulf region, was going to be vital to the future prosperity of Western industries and, in turn, for holding the Soviet Union in check.  As it was in the rest of the world, the extraction of natural resources was an obvious priority, so all indigenous attempts to nationalize economic assets – regardless of any progressive, liberal, or even democratic agendas – needed to be intimidated or destroyed by the US. In 1955, according to secret correspondence between British officials, President Dwight Eisenhower had even called for a ‘high class Machiavellian plan to achieve a situation in the Middle East favourable to our interests which could split the Arabs and defeat the aims of our enemies’.

Just two years later the region got its own ‘Eisenhower Doctrine’; an evolution of the earlier Truman and Monroe doctrines that had sought to secure US interests against international communism and foreign encroachment on the American continents. Stating that ‘the US regards as vital to the national interest and world peace the preservation of the independence and integrity of the nations of the Middle East…’, Eisenhower effectively made the Middle East a special zone of US control. Moreover, as with Truman’s more global declaration, Eisenhower sought to tie the Cold War to all threats to the Middle Eastern status quo by claiming he was ‘prepared to use armed forces to assist [any Middle Eastern country] requesting assistance against armed aggression from any country controlled by international communism’. He also proclaimed that ‘the existing vacuum in the Middle East must be filled by the US before it is filled by Russia’.

The sudden special treatment of the Middle East at this time was, for the most part, due to the simultaneous deepening of US dependency on crude oil imports. Although still a net exporter at the end of World War Two, by 1950 the US was importing a million barrels per day, and by the 1960s more than a third of the US energy demands were being met by such imports, mostly from the Shah’s Iran and the Gulf monarchies. US oil companies had already arrived on the Arabian Peninsula in 1933, eventually founding the American-Arabian Oil Company – Aramco – in Saudi Arabia, and with President Franklin Roosevelt proclaiming in 1943 that ‘the defence of Saudi Arabia is vital to the defence of the US.

IS: Though most accounts of Western involvement in the Middle East focus on the large scale interventions such as the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, with Shadow Wars you’ve decided to look at the West’s often covert actions in the region. What are some of the common strategies and tactics the West has used to achieve their aims in the Middle East?

CD: Since the 1950s a variety of different strategies and tactics have been employed, mostly determined by the scale and urgency of the perceived threat to Western interests. The first ‘wave’ of activity, led by the US and Britain’s fast-growing intelligence agencies, mostly comprised of assassination attempts, false flag operations, and efforts to destabilize uncooperative governments by sponsoring street protests and public political violence. Our best case studies from this period of course include the multiple attempts to kill off Gamal Abdel Nasser, the efforts to unseat Iran’s Mohammed Mosaddegh, who sought to part-nationalize his country’s oil industry, and the steps taken to undermine various Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian administrations.

With other, more paramilitary threats, such as the challenges to Britain’s control over Yemen and then the Dhofar rebellion against the British-backed Omani sultan, such strategies needed to be supplemented by ‘shadow wars’ in which British forces were secretly deployed to assist the troops of their local clients or ‘proxy’ regional allies. In Yemen, for example, Saudi Arabia was conducting airstrikes with considerable British assistance and was sponsoring ‘tribal irregulars’ to fight against a new nationalist regime that had unseated a British-backed imam who had been ruling autocratically over the northern part of the country. In Oman, as well as British intelligence helping to wage a propaganda war against the rebels, the SAS was being deployed without the British parliament’s knowledge, while forces from several other pro-British states including Iran and Jordan arrived to buttress the sultan’s beleaguered army.

By the latter part of the twentieth century, with the West’s demand for Middle Eastern resources intensifying and with the Soviet Union still undefeated, a much darker strategy started to form in which US and British officials sought to cultivate an ultra-conservative pan-Islamic movement capable of countering secular, progressive or potentially Soviet-aligned national liberation movements, or even simply nationalist governments. Gestating since the 1960s, by the 1980s the strategy was bearing great fruit as a CIA and Saudi-funded international jihad had already facilitated the arrival of thousands of foreign fighters in Afghanistan and helped forge a hardline Islamic state along the vulnerable Muslim-majority southern underbelly of the Soviet Union. By the end of the decade Al-Qaeda had emerged in the jihad’s wake, and since then its leaders and various splinter organizations proved themselves more than capable of sustaining the same sort of financial networks originally put in place for the Afghan campaign.

In the 1990s such Islamic fighting forces remained a strategic, but volatile asset for the US and British intelligence agencies, with Al-Qaeda veterans helping form a jihadist ‘foreign legion’ in the Balkans to assist the Bosnian and Kosovan forces against Serbia, and with the ‘Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’ – whose leaders were living in Britain – being protected and paid by MI6 as part of a plot to remove Muammar Gaddafi from power. Al-Qaeda blowback to the West by the end of the decade, including the bombings of US embassies in Africa and the attack on the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen was largely contained. Even the massive disaster of 9/11 – which briefly threatened to expose and undo the US’s historically useful relationships with Saudi Arabia and other ultraconservative allies in the region – was successfully repackaged as a casus belli for a fresh round of US military interventions against other problematic regimes, and was carefully refocused on the immediate symptoms rather than the root causes of Al-Qaeda terror.

More recently, the nationwide revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt led to the discomforting overthrow of dictators who had opened up their economies to Western investment and had satisfactorily played the game of the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’. Their overthrow certainly wrong-footed the Western powers, but very rapidly a series of counter-revolutions began as the West again began to call on key regional allies to either sponsor Islamist parties that could continue to uphold capitalistic structures and prevent the formation of inclusive, democratic, and secular societies, or could sponsor hard-man ‘deep state’ military dictatorships if Islamist parties proved incapable of keeping the crowds off the streets. By March 2011 a parallel campaign had also been launched to help re-direct the ‘Arab Spring’ to states such as Libya and Syria that remained antagonistic to Western interests. Wilfully fostering, funding, and weaponizing localized uprisings in an effort to create fresh nationwide revolutions, key US and British allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE all played major roles in destabilizing these long targeted Arab states, under the banner of the Arab Spring.

IS: Your book includes several sections on the ongoing Syrian war. The media and think-tank commentary around the conflict seems to be increasingly dominated by analysts who are pro-US intervention, or at least sympathetic to Western governments’ broad framing of the conflict. What do you make of the common arguments being put forward about the war?

CD: Despite the Central Intelligence Agency’s [CIA] bungled efforts in the twentieth century, the Western powers have still repeatedly sought to interfere in Syria’s affairs, with even Britain having had fairly well developed plans prior to 2011 to use the terrorist-designated Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and ‘armed men’ to destabilize the Al-Assad regime should it fail to prove more cooperative.  Given this, many seasoned commentators, and not just ardent anti-imperialists or pro-Iran/pro-Kremlin partisans, have correctly understood the dynamics behind the current, post-2011 Syrian conflict, seeing close parallels with the 1980s Afghanistan war, and understanding it as a function of covert Western assistance to Syrian opposition factions combined with more extensive support provided by the West’s regional allies to groups that have included Al-Qaeda franchises and other terrorist-designated organizations.

Nevertheless, as with the very vocal Western supporters of the Afghan ‘freedom fighters’ in the 1980s, most of whom were oblivious to the CIA’s ongoing ‘Operation Cyclone’ and the other efforts to wilfully create a hardline central Asian Islamic state, a significant proportion of the Western commentariat today continues to call for even greater Western intervention in Syria, either on some sort of selective humanitarian basis, or because Western allies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been lobbying strongly for more extensive efforts to remove the Damascus administration from power once and for all, even if this would likely entail the disintegration of the Syrian nation state and the rise of yet another reactionary, conservative religious regime in the region. Indeed, most of the major think tanks and policy institutes in the United States and Britain that focus on Syria either receive substantial donations from such allied governments or, at minimum, have interests that are now incredibly closely intertwined with the political elites of the Gulf monarchies.

IS: What is the role of the Western mainstream media in the West’s ongoing shadow wars in the Middle East?

CD: In general, the Western ‘mainstream’ media seems to be suffering from something of a crisis, perhaps best exemplified by its relentlessly one-sided coverage of the British ‘Brexit’ referendum and the recent US presidential campaign, which has done little to contribute to informed debate and, as far as I can see, has helped to polarize Western society. Its coverage of international events is certainly in trouble too, as although there are still some outstanding foreign correspondents, severe cuts have drastically reduced the number able to provide high quality coalface reporting. I believe this is particularly evident when it comes to writing on the Middle East, as there are now only a handful of journalists left to cover several parallel conflicts all at once. Understandably unable to visit warzones populated by groups known to kidnap for ransom, this means that most have had to rely on difficult-to-vet intermediaries and an increasing army of organized ‘information entrepreneurs’.

Easily able to manipulate this situation, a number of bespoke media outlets and ‘atrocity propaganda’ operations either directly funded by Western governments or Western regional allies, and managed by leading PR firms, have been able to create believable, seemingly credible on-the-ground sources in countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya that the Western media has largely had to rely upon. Usually identifiable by their catchy logos, high definition videos, slick websites, and bilingual twitter feeds, they are often ostensibly humanitarian, civil defence, or ‘citizen journalist’ non-governmental organizations, but yet they consistently produce a highly-politicized, and often very emotive narrative that almost always seeks to undermine the adversaries of the Western powers and their regional allies.  For those who remember the ‘Nayirah testimony’ of ‘babies in incubators’ in the build-up to Operation Desert Storm, or perhaps the story of Soviet soldiers burning babies alive in Afghanistan, there is an eerie sense of familiarity.

IS: Other than your book, which other writers and books would you recommend to someone trying to understand the West’s real role in the Middle East?

CD: Robert Dreyfuss, Devil’s Game. William Blum, Killing Hope. Mark Curtis, Secret Affairs and Web of Deceit. Stephen Dorril, MI6: Fifty Years of Special Operations.

Book review: Britain’s Secret Wars by T. J. Coles

Book review: Britain’s Secret Wars. How and Why the United Kingdom Sponsors Conflict Around the World by T. J. Coles
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
October-November 2016

Mark Curtis’s influential and constantly useful Web of Deceit. Britain’s Role in the Real World was published 13 years ago. Though it’s not made explicit, Britain’s Secret Wars seems to be an attempt to update Curtis’s critical history of UK foreign policy, with T. J. Coles exposing often covert wars “waged for the financial benefit of sectional interests and result in widespread crimes against humanity”.

Other similarities to Curtis include endorsements from Noam Chomsky and John Pilger and an admirable breadth of research. The book’s first half focuses on UK involvement in the Middle East, with the second section looking at lesser known interventions in nations like Papua, Somalia and Bangladesh – valuable information for activists. Particularly impressive is Coles’s analysis of British support for the governments of Sri Lanka and Columbia, where extensive human rights violations have gone hand in hand with Western big business activity. His exploration of the link between EU overfishing off the Somali coast and the rise in piracy is also welcome.

Referencing mainstream sources alongside alternative media and books and, interestingly, a plethora of House of Commons reports, nearly every assertion is referenced so those interested in investigating further can easily do so.

However, despite this many Coles makes many dubious statements, with little reputable evidence to back them up as far as I can tell. For example, his assertion that “terrorists from all over Libya… began an armed uprising in February 2011” seems to tar all those who took up arms against Gaddafi as criminals, while his belief the Islamic Courts Union dominant in Somalia in the mid-2000s was “a socialist government” is positively bizarre. Turning to Iraq, his statement that “the Iraqi government is controlled by the US” seems far too simplistic. If this were so then why, in 2011, did the Iraqi Government reject the US push to keep US forces in Iraq beyond 2011? Astonishingly, he goes on to argue Al-Qaeda in Iraq “appears to have been” a number of foreign forces including Anglo-American special forces. In support he cites reports from 2005 of UK special forces being discovered dressed as Arabs with rocket launches and radios. This certainly raises awkward questions but to jump to the conclusion UK forces are involved in perpetrating false-flag operations is hugely problematic.

All this is a shame because Britain’s Secret Wars highlights many inconvenient truths for the British state and general public – and is generally a good resource for peace and anti-war activists. Approach with caution.

Britain’s Secret Wars is published by Clairview Books, priced £14.99.

 

The red herring of post-war planning in Iraq

The red herring of post-war planning in Iraq
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
23 June 2016

“If they can get you asking the wrong questions”, the American novelist Thomas Pynchon once wrote, “they don’t have to worry about answers.”

When it comes to the US and UK’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent occupation, the British establishment have conveniently and repeatedly asked the wrong questions. Quoting a senior, unnamed source, last month the Times newspaper reported Tony Blair, former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and the former head of MI6 Richard Dearlove “will face serious ‘damage to their reputations’ from the Chilcot report into the Iraq War, which has delivered an ‘absolutely brutal’ verdict on the mismanagement of the occupation.” According to the Times “the section [of the Inquiry’s report] on the occupation will be longer than that on the build-up to” the invasion, with the Times reporter blogging that the section on the occupation “is where some of the most damning verdicts are drawn.”

As they have done with every previous public utterance he has made in recent years, the Guardian happily provided Blair with a platform in June to pre-empt the Inquiry’s findings – and shift the focus to the occupation and away from the most damaging and dangerous areas for the former prime minister. According to Guardian Blair will “argue the ultimate cause of the long-term bloodshed in Iraq was the scale of external intervention in the country by Iran and al-Qaida.” (Come on, stop laughing, this is serious). He will also “accept that the planning for the aftermath of the war was inadequate” and admit “the west did not foresee the degree to which complex tribal, religious and sectarian tensions would be uncorked” by overthrowing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Let’s be clear: the US-UK military occupation of Iraq – full of massive amounts of deadly violence dished out by the US and UK armed forces, torture and destructive divide and rule tactics – was a catastrophe for the people of Iraq. And it was hugely unpopular, with a secret Ministry of Defence 2005 poll of Iraqis finding 82 per cent “strongly opposed” the presence of coalition troops, and 45 per cent saying attacks against US and UK forces were justified. However, it is a complete red herring to suggest better planning is the crux of the issue. “The problem wasn’t the way that this was implemented, the problem was that we were there at all”, argued Rory Stewart, who served as the Coalition Provisional Authority Deputy Governorate Co-Ordinator in Maysan province In Iraq, in 2013:

“All these people who think ‘If only we had done this, if only if we hadn’t de-Ba’athified, if only we hadn’t abolished the army’ misunderstand the fundamental tragedy of that encounter between the international community and Iraqis… it wasn’t the detailed, tactical decisions that were made, it was the overall fact of our presence. The problem was so deep that if we hadn’t made those mistakes we would have made other mistakes. It was a wrecked intervention from the beginning, from the very moment we arrived on the ground.”

Moreover, the assumption behind the establishment’s fretting over post-war planning is that if the occupation had gone smoothly then everything would have been OK. In reality, it would not have changed the fact that the US and UK aggressively invaded an oil rich nation in contravention of international law, based on pack deceptions. It was a “crime of aggression” – as explained by the chief legal adviser at the Foreign Office at the time – whether the occupation was successful or not. Bluntly, if I plan and execute a robbery, whether it goes ‘smoothly’ with minimal violence and resistance or is a complete mess is immaterial – it’s still a crime.

The limited, self-serving debate surrounding post-war planning in Iraq echoes the liberal media’s belief that, to quote Cambridge Professor David Runciman, the US and UK invaded Iraq “to spread the merits of democracy.” Yes, it all went wrong, but our intentions were good. This kind of thinking can lead to spectacularly convoluted and offensive conclusions, as the BBC’s John Humphrys proved in October 2012 when he asked about the British occupation of Iraq: “If a country has sent its young men to another country to die, to restore – create democracy, you’d expect, well you’d expect a bit of gratitude, wouldn’t you?”

British historian Mark Curtis has coined a term for this blinkered power friendly framing: ‘Britain’s basic benevolence.’ Criticism of foreign policies is possible, notes Curtis, “but within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence”.

The West’s support for democracy in the Middle East is also evidence free. “It is presented as though the invasion of Iraq was motivated largely or entirely by an altruistic desire to share democracy”, notes Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. “This is asserted despite the long history of Anglo-American great-power involvement in the Middle East, which has, for the most part, not involved an effort to democratize the region”, she explains. “Rather, the general trend has been to either support authoritarian rulers who were already in place, or to participate in the active consolidation of authoritarian rule, including strong military and intelligence cooperation, as long as these rulers have been seen as supporting Western interests more than popularly elected governments would.”

Back to Chilcot. Blair’s Government and its supporters successfully deceived – or atleast bamboozled – large sections of the press and key sections of the establishment in 2002-3 in what Curtis calls “a government propaganda campaign of perhaps unprecedented heights in the post-war world.” By steering the debate onto questions surrounding the occupation of Iraq, Blair and co., assisted by a pliant press and Chilcot, are once again shifting the narrative to their advantage. We cannot allow them to triumph over us again. Therefore it is imperative that everyone interested in uncovering the truth and seeking justice for Iraqis keep the focus on the key issue – the deceptions, lies and legal questions surrounding the run up to the initial invasion. As the judgement of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg – a key influence on the development of international law – declared, “To initiate a war of aggression… is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

 

 

Western support for extremists will lead to more terrorist attacks

Western support for extremists will lead to more terrorist attacks
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 January 2015

Is it safe to come out yet? Can we begin the rational, reasoned debate about the Paris terrorist attacks that is so desperately needed?

The media coverage and discussion over the recent shocking events in France has been predictably hysterical and evidence-free. For Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow the attack was a “brutal clash of civilisations. Europe’s belief in freedom of expression vs those for whom death is a weapon in defending their beliefs.” The normally sensible Will Self labelled the perpetrators “evil”. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen tweeted “I am shaking with rage at the attack on Charlie Hebdo. It’s an attack on the free world.” His frightening solution? “The entire free world should respond, ruthlessly.” Seeking to go beyond the bile, some have made the very sensible suggestion that the ongoing Western military attacks in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan etc. may well have contributed to the radicalisation of the attackers.

Missing from the endless mainstream media coverage is any mention of the awkward fact that, as Noam Chomsky has stated, “traditionally the United States and Britain have by and large strongly supported radical Islamic fundamentalism.” The historian Mark Curtis details the link in his 2010 book ‘Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam’. Citing British support for the “crazies” in Afghanistan in the 1980s and their BFF, the ruthless Saudi regime, Curtis notes “British Governments, both Labour and Conservative, have, in pursuing the so-called ‘national interest’ abroad, colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organisations.”

It’s important to remember all this is not ancient history. Just as the Western-backed jihad in Afghanistan gave birth to Al-Qaeda, by supporting those who wish to violently overthrow President Assad in Syria, the West has helped to create the jihadi blowback of which Paris may well be only the beginning.

You don’t believe me? Let me explain. The West has been helping to arm the rebels in Syria since before May 2012. With its involvement initially covert and limited, the US gave a wink and a nod to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to support the rebels. This use of proxies has continued despite it being clear since at least October 2012 that arms provided by Qatar and Saudi Arabia were going to hardline Islamic jihadists. How clear, you ask? Well, as clear as a New York Times headline stating “Rebel Arms Flow is Said to Benefit Jihadists in Syria”.

The US, the UK and, yes, France, have continued to provide arms and training to the rebels despite experts repeatedly warning of the danger of such a strategy. In September 2012 the Head of the UN monitoring mission in Syria said Western support for the opposition risked prolonging the conflict. Writing in the New York Times in June 2013 two former NATO Secretary-Generals noted “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.” Experts from Chatham House, the Royal United Services Institute and the European Council on Foreign Relations all warned that weapons sent in to Syria would likely end up in the hands of jihadists. William Hague, of course, told the BBC Today Programme there was no risk of arms falling into the wrong hands. Who do you think has been proved right? Unsurprisingly, and somewhat ironically, CIA-supplied weapons have been spotted being used by Islamic State to target armoured vehicles the US had supplied to the US-backed Iraqi Government.

You don’t need to be a counter-terrorism expert to realise an increasingly militarised conflict, awash with weapons and populated by a burgeoning number of extremists, with no peaceful end in sight, is exactly the kind of conditions that encourage violent jihadists to travel to Syria. Terrorism analyst Aaron Zelin’s February 2013 warning that “the Syrian conflict is going to be as big, if not bigger, than Afghanistan was in the 1980s in terms of mobilizing jihadi fighters” seems very prescient today. However, it is veteran correspondent Patrick Cockburn who makes the key point about Western responsibility: “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.”

All of this information about our own responsibility for engendering radical, sometimes violent, Islamists is on the public record, having been published in widely read, highly respected newspapers over the last few years. And yet it has effectively been excluded from the on-going debate surrounding the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the terrorist threat to the West. No overt censorship or terrorist intimidation was needed – just professional, career-minded journalists and well-educated commentators arguing feverishly within the narrow bounds of acceptable debate.