Tag Archives: Mehdi Hasan

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.

Does arming the Kurds mean the West is supporting forces committing war crimes?

Does arming the Kurds mean the West is supporting forces committing war crimes?
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
29 November 2015

In the sometimes hysterical political debate that has happened since the Paris terrorist attacks, a strange consensus has coalesced around how the UK should respond to the rise of Islamic State.

With the Kurds garnering a great deal of sympathy in the West since the 1991 Gulf War, prominent progressive commentators opposed to direct UK military intervention in Syria agree that we should be “systematically arming” the Kurdish militia, as Labour leftist Owen Jones forcefully argued on a recent edition of BBC Sunday Morning Live. Similarly, last year Aljazeera presenter Mehdi Hasan wrote that “Progressives need to get behind the Kurds”. Ditto George Galloway. The Tory Government agrees, and has been training and arming Kurdish forces in Iraq since 2014.

The respected human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell is another supporter of arming the Kurds, recently arguing a “successful strategy might be to empower” the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria and the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq – both of which have been fighting Islamic State.

However, in October 2015 Amnesty International released a report that found “evidence of alarming abuses, including eyewitness accounts and satellite images, detailing the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians and the razing of entire villages” in areas of northern Syria under the control of the Syrian Kurdish political party PYD (the political party of the YPG). “By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the [PYD-controlled] Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes,” Lama Fakih, a Senior Crisis Advisor at Amnesty International, noted.

I challenged Tatchell on Twitter, asking why he was urging support for groups that were committing war crimes, linking to the Amnesty International report. His reply? “This action was wrong but exceptional & untypical of YPG. Overall, they have a good record of protecting civilians.”

“Exceptional & untypical” is certainly one way to describe what Amnesty International call “the deliberate displacement of thousands of civilians” from atleast eight villages. Reporting from the same area in July 2015, the Independent’s Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn explained the conflict “has many aspects of an ethnic war: the Kurds are driving out Sunni Arabs, whom they accuse of being Islamic State supporters.” In June 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a 107-page report on the human rights situation in PYD-run enclaves in Syria. According to HRW there are arbitrary arrests of the PYD’s political opponents, abuses in detention, the use of child soldiers and excessive force was used to quell political protests.

A similar picture emerges of the Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State in Iraq. A February 2015 report by Human Rights Watch highlighted how “Kurdish forces have confined thousands of Arabs in ‘security zones’ in areas of northern Iraq that they have captured since August 2014” from Islamic State. In addition, “Kurdish forces for months barred Arabs displaced by fighting from returning to their homes… while permitting Kurds to return to those areas and even to move into homes of Arabs who fled.” Local Kurds told HRW that Kurdish forces had destroyed dozens of Arab homes. One European diplomat with familiarity of the areas under Kurdish control explained there was “deliberate, systematic destruction of Sunni Arab property” by the Peshmerga. “It’s not just collective punishment for perceived support. It’s wholesale ethnic cleansing.”

Another recent report for the Middle East Eye describes a recent Dutch television documentary that filmed a commander of the Kurdish People’s Defence Force in Iraq saying that his forces did not take any prisoners. “Not in my forces, nowhere actually. Let’s be honest – simply nowhere. We don’t want prisoners.” (Unsurprisingly, the Kurdish authorities in Syria and Iraq have denied the claims made by the documentary and the reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch).

All this is not to say that, all things considered, arming the Kurds might not be the least worst realistic option available to Western governments and publics interested in defeating Islamic State. However, when deciding on what action, if any, to take in Syria and Iraq, it is essential the general population has an accurate understanding of what is happening in these conflicts, and a realistic picture of those we are supporting or plan to support. The prominent progressives named above have not told their readers the truth about the Kurdish forces they are urging the West to arm. Furthermore, it is likely that the defacto ethnic cleansing the Kurdish forces are reported to have carried out in Syria and Iraq is likely to have been counterproductive, pushing local populations into the arms of the Islamic State or other forces they feel can protect them.

“The charges also raise a complex question for the countries that train and equip Kurdish forces”, journalist Sara Elizabeth Williams notes in her Foreign Policy article about the abuses carried out by Kurdish forces in Iraq. “Can they continue to supply military aid if their weapons are used to commit what experts say amount to war crimes?”

Legal or illegal? The 2001 US-British attack on Afghanistan

Legal or illegal? The 2001 US-British attack on Afghanistan
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 April 2013

The Twitter equivalent of a bickering married couple, during one of their regular Twitter spats Times newspaper columnist David Aaronovitch and Huffington Post Political Editor Mehdi Hasan recently alighted on a point of agreement. The US/NATO invasion of Afghanistan was “UN [United Nations] sanctioned”, they both said. But are they right? With British forces formally handing over the military command of Helmand to US forces, it seems a good point to look at the legal status of the bombing and invasion in October 2001.

Written in 2010, the official House of Commons Library briefing paper on the subject provides interesting reading: “The military campaign in Afghanistan was not specifically mandated by the UN, but was widely (although not universally) perceived to be a legitimate form of self-defence under the UN Charter.” The paper goes on to explain that Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the “threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state”. The accepted exceptions to this are where the Security Council authorises military action, or where it is in self-defence under Article 51 of the Charter.

As the paper alludes to, the United Nations Security Council did not authorise the military attack on Afghanistan. Furthermore, there is reason to believe the US and UK’s citing of Article 51 is suspect too.

Writing a month into the invasion, Marjorie Cohn, a Professor of Law at California’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law and a former president of the US National Lawyers Guild, described the US and UK attack as “a patently illegal use of armed force.” The bombing was not a legitimate form of self-defence under Article 51 for two reasons, according to Cohn. First, “the attacks in New York and Washington D.C. were criminal attacks, not ‘armed attacks’ by another state.” Indeed, as Frank Ledwidge argues in his new book Investment in Blood. The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War, “the Taliban certainly were not aware of the 9/11 plot, and equally certainly would not have approved even if they had been.” Cohn’s second criticism is “there was not an imminent threat of an armed attack on the US after September 11, or the US would not have waited three weeks before initiating its bombing campaign.” Michael Mandel, Professor of Law at Osgoode Hall Law School, is in agreement on the latter point, arguing “the right of unilateral self-defence does not include the right to retaliate once an attack has stopped.”

Even if one were to agree the West’s attack was legitimate under Article 51, the House of Commons Library paper notes proportionality is central to the use of force in self-defence. “It may not be considered proportionate to produce the same amount of damage” as the initial attack, the paper notes. Writing in November 2001, Brian Foley, Professor of Law at Florida Coastal School of Law, maintained “these attacks on Afghanistan most likely do not stand up as proportional to the threat of terrorism on US soil.” Having undertaken a systematic study of press reports and eyewitness accounts, Professor Marc Herold from the University of Hampshire found more civilians were killed during ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ than died on 9/11.

Moreover, the House of Commons Library briefing paper inadvertently highlights the crux of the issue: “The USA might conceivably have gained specific legal support from the Security Council for its action in Afghanistan, but in the end did not seek such a Resolution.” With much of the world standing in sympathy alongside the US, why didn’t the US try to get UN Security Council authorisation for their attack on Afghanistan? “An immediate need after 9/11 was to recover imperial prestige swiftly and decisively”, argue Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls in their book Bleeding Afghanistan. Washington, Warlords and the Propaganda of Silence. Speaking just after the bombing had started the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance leader Abdul Haq concurred with this reason for the attack: “The US is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world.” The last thing a nation attempting to “recover imperial prestige” would want to be seen doing is asking the United Nations for permission to act – a sure sign of weakness to the watching world.

The likely illegality of the 2001 attack on Afghanistan remains one of the biggest secrets of the so-called ‘war on terror’. No overt censorship is needed – just an intellectual culture and corporate-dominated journalism that has (often heated) discussion within a narrow set of factual and ideological boundaries. But while it is perhaps right to be forgiving of those who lost their critical faculties during those days of high emotion immediately after 9/11, how should we judge the ignorance of two award-winning journalists repeating the official deception 13 years later?

Why Do Left-Wing Commentators Ignore Climate Change?

Why Do Left-Wing Commentators Ignore Climate Change?
By Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
26 May 2014

Question. What do Seumas Milne, Owen Jones, Mehdi Hasan, Laurie Penny, Julie Bindel and Richard Seymour all have in common? All are, of course, prominent left-wing commentators who write for mainstream newspapers like the Guardian. And all do brilliant work drawing attention to lots of important issues. But they also have one other thing in common – all have had relatively little to say about man-made climate change.

Perhaps their relative lack of concern is because the health of our climate is not that important or particularly pressing? After all, what could be more important or pressing than issues such as war and peace, the Government’s austerity agenda, the next election, poverty, inequality, homophobia, racism or feminism?

The basic facts on climate change point to a different reality. As early as 2009 the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan’s think-tank, the Global Humanitarian Forum, highlighted how climate change was responsible for 300,000 deaths a year and affecting 300 million people. And with the scientific consensus estimating the world is currently heading for a minimum temperature increase of 4°C on 1990 levels by 2100 (and perhaps even earlier), the future is looking very bleak indeed.

The World Bank summarised what this future will look like in its 2012 report ‘Turn Down The Heat: Why A 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided’. “The 4°C scenarios are devastating”, the report’s foreword explains. “The inundation of coastal cities; increasing risks for food production potentially leading to higher malnutrition rates; many dry regions becoming dryer, wet regions wetter; unprecedented heat waves in many regions, especially in the tropics; substantially exacerbated water scarcity in many regions; increased frequency of high-intensity tropical cyclones; and irreversible loss of biodiversity, including coral reef systems.” Let’s go into a couple of these areas in a little more detail. According to a 2009 Guardian report new research by climate scientists show sea levels may rise by a metre or more by 2100, affecting “ten percent of the world’s population – about 600 million people” who live in vulnerable areas. Regarding the effect of climate change on our oceans, the former making the latter more acidic, the International Programme on the State of the Ocean summarised the situation last year as follows: “This [acidification] is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change, and exposing organisms to intolerable evolutionary pressure. The next mass extinction may have already begun.”

Not frightening enough for you? Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester, argues a 4°C world will likely be “incompatible with organised global community.” Three of the academic co-authors of the health chapter of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report recently wrote that “human-driven climate change poses a great threat, unprecedented in type and scale, to wellbeing, health and perhaps even to human survival.”

It gets worse. Last year the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency said the world is currently on course for not 4°C but 6°C of warming by 2100 – a figure also predicted by the Global Carbon Project, a group of 31 scientists from seven countries led by Professor Corinne Le Quéré, now the Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. Climate specialist Mark Lynas, author of the award-winning book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, argues a 6°C increase by 2100 would mean “we are going to face nothing less than a global wipeout.”

With the situation as grave as this, the aforementioned journalists relative silence on the topic seems downright reckless. If you are interested in the wellbeing of those who live in the Global South, or issues such as poverty, women’s rights, migration, hunger and war then you also have to grapple with climate change. “It is climate change that speaks to me most loudly. Partly because it is so overarching”, the American nonviolent activist George Lakey told me in 2012. “If we don’t solve that one there is a whole lot else we won’t get much space to work with. We will be on such a survival level. It will be very, very tough.”

To be clear, I’m not taking the moral high ground. As a writer I recognise that I too need to focus more of my time and energy on climate change. In fact all of the Left needs to raise its game and exert more pressure on this issue. Because when the World Bank has a greater understanding about, and concern for, the dangers climate change poses to the world than many of our top left-wing commentators, something is very wrong indeed.

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