Tag Archives: Middle East

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.

Advertisements

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

My account of being censored by The New Arab about an article on Syria

My account of being censored by The New Arab about an article on Syria
by Ian Sinclair
11 February 2017

In August 2016 I received an email from the Assistant Editor of The New Arab, an online newspaper focussed on the Middle East, inviting me to write an article about climate change and the Middle East.

Though I was busy, I responded saying I would try to write something in the coming months. Aware that Wikipedia says The New Arab was owned by an investment company created by the Emir of Qatar I asked about the freedom to write critical things, including making criticisms of the Qatari Government. The New Arab upholds “professional standards… you may criticize whomever you want as long as do so in a respectable manner based on facts and logical rationale”, I was assured.

Over the next few months I wrote a couple of articles for The New Arab – on climate change and the GCC and on the US dominance of the United Nations.

After pitching successfully to the Comment Editor at The New Arab, on 2 February 2017 I submitted an article that asked why the media was ignoring leaked US government documents about Syria. This was important to highlight, I argued, because the documents completely contradicted the dominant narrative about the West and Syria that is endlessly repeated in the media. My article was published on 7 February 2017, and in the next couple of days was retweeted hundreds of times, and got over 5,000 Facebook shares.

However, when I went to read the comments under my article on the morning of 9 February 2017 I found that the article had been removed from The New Arab website. I emailed the Comment Editor, asking what had happened and was directed to the CEO of The New Arab. The CEO told me he had removed my article from the website because he “found it to be contrary to our editorial line.” He continued: “I made the decision to remove it from the website because our values should not be undermined. I have no problem with publishing some differences of opinion on the Syrian issue, but I cannot allow something to be published that undermines the revolution that started against what is a bloody and tyrannical regime.”

Referring to my “opinion”, he noted “I do not believe that the Syrian revolution was in any way a Western construct or something that was encouraged/egged on by the West. Syrian people went out to claim their freedoms and were suppressed. This is the main issue at hand. How and when this conflict began turning into a proxy war etc does not detract from that point.”

The CEO ended by noting “I certainly don’t wish to censor anything. You can criticize whom you want. But the issue here was not criticism. It was an inference that I cannot accept given our stance.”

I replied to the CEO:

“Dear [CEO]

Thanks for your reply.

By removing my article for the farcical reasons you give below you have, regrettably, massively undermined the credibility of The New Arab and yourself.

Very obviously my article does not ‘undermine the revolution’ or argue the revolution was a ‘Western construct’. There is a plethora of evidence that Western governments and its allies in the region have supported the insurgency – including the US government sources I quoted in the article you have censored.

I would like to thank [the Comment Editor and Assistant Editor], both of whom have been a pleasure to work with.

Kind regards

Ian Sinclair”

 

My article can be read here.

 

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.

8 facts everyone should know about the Iraq crisis

8 facts everyone should know about the Iraq crisis
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News blog
8 September 2014

Just over ten years since it failed the public so completely over the 2003 Iraq War, the mainstream media’s coverage of the current Iraq crisis has been predictably awful.

“Stop droning on Mr Cameron… SEND IN THE DRONES” was The Sun’s considered front page on 4 September 2014. At the opposite end of the British press spectrum The Independent’s front page read “Your move, Mr President”. Egging the US and UK on, The Independent noted “The leader of the free world has begun to look alarmingly impotent.” The other liberal outpost of the British media, The Guardian, supports the US air strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq (ISIS or Islamic State).

As always, the BBC has been working hard to amplify the British elite’s concerns. On 4 September 2014 the BBC Today Programme invited on Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary who played a central role in the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, to speak in the prime interview slot about why he supports the bombing of ISIS. Interviewing former Chief of the Defence Staff David Richards the next morning, Today Programme presenter John Humphrys made the following biased statement: “We have this bunch of mad men rampaging across the Middle East and they have to be stopped. They have to be not only contained but – I don’t know whether you’ll agree with this – but destroyed.”

Then there was the 30 August 2014 BBC Newsnight special on the fallout from the August 2013 parliamentary vote against UK military action in Syria. The diverse range of studio guests invited to discuss the topic were former Defence Secretary Liam Fox MP, Paddy Ashdown, former First Sea Lord Lord West, former Head of the British Army Lord Dannatt, Neo-Conservative Francis Fukuyama and Professor Mary Kaldor (Kaldor was able to squeeze in a couple of sentences pushing for a more measured response to ISIS before she was cut off).

Reading, watching and listening to this “babbling brook of bullshit”, like many people I’m sure, I’ve become increasingly angry at the narrowness of the debate and just how closely the media’s framing of the issue follows that of the US and UK governments. Therefore, I’ve decided to pull together some of the pertinent facts and arguments that the media refuses to mention and discuss.

Fact 1: Many experts argue Western airstrikes are counterproductive and will likely energise ISIS

Institute for Policy Studies fellow Phyllis Bennis told the New York Times on 7 August 2014: “It should be eminently clear that we cannot bomb Islamist extremists into submission or disappearance. Every bomb recruits more supporters.”

Robert Pape, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism, argued on 7 June 2014: “Far from hurting the terrorists, re-engaging Iraq (and/or engaging Syria) would put us back on the path of a rising terrorist threat that has taken us over a decade to escape,” He concludes: “US military involvement can only hurt, not help.”

Writing for Foreign Affairs magazine, on 8 August 2014 Steven Simon, senior director for Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the White House from 2011-12, argued US air strikes “will almost certainly unite Sunnis against other sects and boost support for Isis while fuelling disdain for the United States.”

Speaking to Democracy Now! on 29 August 2014, Jonathan Steele, the Guardian’s former Chief Foreign Policy correspondent and author of ‘Defeat: Why America and Britain Lost Iraq’, argued “Military strikes by the West are not likely to be effective in the long term, and again as we’ve seen in many places – Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan – they tend to be counterproductive and only create more recruits for the enemy you are trying to deal with.”

Fact 2: The US and UK’s 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq played an important role in the rise of ISIS

Despite Tony Blair’s comically desperate attempts to duck responsibility, there is broad agreement among Iraq observers like Professor George Joffe, a Middle East expert at the University of Cambridge, that the US-UK invasion and occupation played an important role in the rise of ISIS – both in the chaos and sectarianism the US-UK occupation (often deliberately) caused, and the violence US and UK forces visited on the local population. For example, the New York Times recently reported the following about the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi: “At every turn, Mr Baghdadi’s rise has been shaped by the United States’s involvement in Iraq.” The article goes on to note Baghdadi had spent five years in a US prison “where, like many Isis fighters now on the battlefield, he became more radicalised”. [my emphasis added].

Fact 3: The US and UK enabled the growth of ISIS by supporting the rebels in Syria

The media quickly leapt on and amplified Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that it was President Obama’s inaction in Syria that created space for ISIS to grow. However, what the media failed to mention was the far more important connection between the West, Syria and ISIS – that the West’s ongoing intervention in Syria is a key reason behind ISIS’s growth.

The US, often with the help of the UK and France, has been supporting the rebels in Syria since at least early 2012. The CIA has played a key role, coordinating large arm shipments to the insurgents, training rebels in Jordan and providing significant amounts of non-lethal and financial support.

This support has likely escalated and prolonged the fighting, and created the conditions in which ISIS flourish. As Patrick Cockburn, the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent and author of ‘The jihadis return: ISIS and the failures of the Global War on Terror’, explained: the “U.S. government as a whole – and foreign powers steer away from one very crucial aspect of the rise of ISIS, which is that in Syria, the West backed the uprising against President Assad, and still does, and this enabled ISIS to develop, gain military experience and then use it back in Iraq.”

This is not the benefit of hindsight. Writing in June 2013, two former NATO Secretary-Generals warned about the consequences of Western military engagement in Syria, such as directly arming the rebels:

“Rather than secure humanitarian space and empower a political transition, Western military engagement in Syria is likely to provoke further escalation on all sides, deepening the civil war and strengthening the forces of extremism, sectarianism and criminality gaining strength across the country.” [emphasis added]

Fact 4: US-supplied arms to Syrian rebels have ended up in the hands of ISIS

It is well known that ISIS captured large amounts of US-supplied arms when the Iraqi Army fled in the face of the initial ISIS advance in June 2014. What has not been reported widely is the fact ISIS have been seen using weapons the CIA helped send to rebels in Syria.

In April 2013 the New York Times reported the “CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters”. Starting in early 2012 this had “grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights”. The report went on to explain “American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia”. A year later Brown Moses, a blogger who tracks weapons use in Syria, discovered ISIS were deploying Croatian arms against US-made Armoured Personnel Carriers used by government forces in Iraq. A new investigation by Conflict Armament Research confirms that ISIS has stocks of Yugoslav anti-tank weapons originally sent to rebels in Syria.

More broadly, almost certainly ISIS have received US supplied-weapons as members of the US-supported Free Syrian Army have switched allegiances and joined ISIS. “In the East of Syria, there is no Free Syrian Army any longer. All Free Syrian Army people [there] have joined the Islamic State”, a high level security commander of Islamic State told the Washington Post.

This transfer of arms into the hands of extremists such as ISIS has been repeatedly predicted by many establishment experts including the Royal United Service Institute’s Shashank Joshi and Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy from the European Council on Foreign Relations. The latter noted “it is unrealistic to expect that weapons can be guaranteed to end up in the hands of pro-Western actors. The US and its allies were unable to achieve the micromanagement of weapons control in Iraq and Afghanistan, even with a massive physical presence there, so it is unlikely that they will fare better doing this with a light footprint.” Indeed as early as October 2012 US officials said they were concerned that arms being supplied to rebels with the help of the CIA were going to “hard-line Islamic jihiadists”.

The US continues to arm Syrian rebels.

Fact 5: Turkey, a NATO member, has supported ISIS

On 5 September 2014 President Obama hailed the creation of a “core coalition” that would focus on destroying ISIS. The coalition is made up of ten countries, including Turkey.

According to the Washington Post, NATO member Turkey “rolled out the red carpet” to Islamic State and other jihadists fighting the Syrian Government. Wounded jihadists from Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front were treated at Turkish hospitals while Turkish border towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms into Syria. Islamic State “were able to grow in power partly by using the border region of a NATO member – Turkey – as a strategically vital supply route and entry point to wage their war”, the Washington Post notes.

Turkey continues to be a major recipient of US arms.

Fact 6: Western allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia have played an important role in the rise of ISIS

Quoting US and Arab officials, in June 2012 Wall Street Journal reported “The US in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates”. The New York Times noted “relying on surrogates allows the United States to keep its fingerprints off operations but also means they may play out in ways that conflict with American interests.” In May 2013 The Financial Times estimated Qatari support for Syrian rebels at $3 billion.

Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia deny they have funded ISIS and other jihadis. However, many disagree. Patrick Cockburn argued “the foster parents of Isis and the other Sunni jihadi movements in Iraq and Syria are Saudi Arabia, the Gulf monarchies and Turkey… Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington and head of Saudi intelligence from 2012 to February 2014, was doing everything he could to back the jihadi opposition [in Syria] until his dismissal.” The Atlantic notes ISIS’s success in Iraq “is in part due to the support they have received from two Persian Gulf countries: Qatar and Saudi Arabia.” Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, believes that the rise of ISIS was the consequence of “sustained funding” from Saudi Arabia.

There has been a lot of debate about whether this support is from the Qatari and Saudi governments or from private individuals from these countries. However, Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University and the author of ‘After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies’, argues the claim private individuals in the Gulf are the source of the trouble “is problematic at best, and bogus at worst.” This is because nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia “are not really ‘states’ that conform to international definitions, as powerful, wealthy figures (whether princes, sheikhs, or members of the merchant elite) usually wear multiple hats, often slipping in and out of governmental positions”.

The New York Times reported the US knew as early as spring 2011 that Qatari support for rebels in Libya meant, in part, sending arms to jihadis. The article explained that “the weapons and money from Qatar strengthened militant groups in Libya, allowing them to become a destabilising force since the fall of the Qaddafi government”.

So, to be clear, the US, aware that that Qatar armed jihadists in Libya, chose to continue using Qatar as a proxy to arm the rebels in Syria.

Fact 7: Supported and armed by the US, the Iraqi Government perpetrates serious human rights abuses – which likely increases support for ISIS

In May 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported the Iraqi Government has been dropping barrel bombs on civilian neighbourhoods in Fallujah. HRW also noted the Iraqi Government has “repeatedly struck Fallujah General Hospital with mortar shells and other munitions”. These indiscriminate attacks “have caused civilian casualties and forced thousands of residents to flee”, according to the report. Summarising findings by the United Nations Human Rights Council the Telegraph noted Iraqi Government soldiers “have indiscriminately shelled and carried out airstrikes on civilian districts of Kirkuk, Falluja, and Salahuddin, killing and injuring many dozens of residents”.

Unsurprisingly, this targeting of civilians has increased support for ISIS. Speaking to Democracy Now! about ISIS recruitment, Mohammed al Dulaimy, an Iraqi journalist with McClatchy Newspapers, said there was “a long list of reasons and a buildup of years… But I can tell you one thing that I know for sure, that the indiscriminate use of weapons against civilians by the Iraqi government is the number one.”

The US plans to strengthen the Iraqi Army.

Fact 8: The US and UK are not interested in democracy and human rights in the Middle East

In his 2003 book ‘Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World’ the historian Mark Curtis argued “The ideological system promotes one key concept… the idea of Britain’s basic benevolence… criticism of foreign policies is certainly possible, and normal, but within narrow limits which show ‘exceptions’ to, or ‘mistakes’ in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence.”

Just how accurate Curtis’s rule continues to be is frankly frightening. Thus Guardian columnist (and former Editor of The Times) Simon Jenkins recently argued “10 years ago the west went to war for the sake of a better Iraq… to replace authority with democracy”. Ditto the Guardian leader column, which similarly noted in passing “western nations… had once aspired to democratically reshape the region [the Middle East]”. Writing in the Eastern Daily Press, the biggest selling regional daily newspaper in England, columnist Mark Nicholls lamented “the ultimate sacrifice of the 179 UK soldiers, and the thousands of US personnel, who gave their lives in trying to restore peace and democracy to Iraq”.

Of course, anyone with a passing knowledge of the history of Western actions in the Middle East understands there is something else going on. The US and UK directed coup that overthrew of the democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran in 1953, the West’s support for Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, the US’s arming of Turkey in its war against the Kurds in the 1990s, on-going Western support for the Gulf autocracies – all strongly suggest the US and UK have little interest in democracy and human rights in the Middle East.

As Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House, argued in the recent Radio 4 documentary ‘Sandhurst and the Sheikhs’: “I don’t think that the UK has a desire to see democracy in the Gulf. I think that they would probably like better functioning parliaments, higher turnouts in elections and things like this but there is certainly no desire to see the ruling families be replaced by opposition movements. I think the British Government interest is trying to make the rule of the existing monarchs more sustainable and more palatable.”

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lamenting the loss of Western power: Paul Mason and the Middle East

Lamenting the loss of Western power: Paul Mason and the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
BS News
26 August 2014

Channel 4 News has long been known as the television news show to watch to get an alternative, more sensible, more in-depth, more critical take on current affairs. And within the Channel 4 News team Paul Mason is seen as one of the few mainstream television journalists with left-wing sympathies (albeit never overtly stated – he was BBC Newsnight’s Economics Editor from 2001 to 2013, after all).

As he is respected by many on the Left as a progressive and critical reporter, and as he represents the limits of critical reportage in the mainstream, it’s worth taking some time to look at a couple of blogs Mason has written about world events in 2014.

First up is his February 2014 blog ‘How the West slipped into powerlessness’, which includes this nugget:

When the USA decided, last summer, it could not sell military intervention in Syria – either to its parliaments, its people or its military – it sent a signal to every dictator, torturer and autocrat in the world that only diplomats, at the time, truly understood. The British diplomat in charge of Syria, Reza Afshar, tweeted a one-word summary of the UK parliamentary vote on Syria: “Disaster!”

So Mason, championed by many on the Left, laments that the US-UK did not attack Syria. Luckily parliament responded to public opinion and expert opinion rather than journalists like Mason and voted down a Government’s motion on war for the first time since 1782.

[An aside. Media Lens published a critique of Mason’s blog in March 2014, to which Mason said he would respond when he had the time. Mason’s silence stretched through June 2014, when I prodded him. Media Lens joined the Twitter exchange, noting Noam Chomsky, a man who famously spends several hours a day replying to letters and emails, always replies promptly. Mason’s reply: “Yeah but I deal in fact, not ideology.”]

In June 2014 Mason published another sprawling blog ‘Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Ukraine: what happens in a world without framework?’ Sounding much like the kind of man who cries wolf about the loss of men’s power at the first whiff of feminism, Mason argues the world order is in crisis: “The look on the faces of the politicians – Obama, Hague, Hollande – says it all: not much. Like [Humphrey] Bogart in Casablanca they have the look of people whose world is falling apart.”

Why is the world collapsing? Mason has the answer. “The root cause is pretty clear: America’s sudden swing from armed intervention in the Middle East to multi-lateralism and disengagement.” Yep, that’s right. The problem isn’t US intervention in the Middle East. No, the problem is that the US isn’t intervening enough! So the US propping up the Egyptian dictatorship for 30 years since the early 80s isn’t a root cause. Neither is the US’s continued support for President al-Sisi’s dictatorship, drenched in the blood of thousands of dead Egyptians. Neither is the US’s support for the Gulf autocracies Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Or the US-UK’s illegal, aggressive invasion of Iraq in 2003 and subsequent occupation that decimated the country, deliberately stoked sectarianism and led to a massive increase in suicide terrorism.

Incidentally, Mason’s characterisation of current US foreign policy as one of “multi-lateralism and disengagement” is certainly one way of describing the US arming and financing the Syrian rebels (see below), US drone attacks on seven countries during the Obama Administration, the US being the biggest arms supplier to the Middle East, the US’s continued support for the Gulf monarchies, US military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE and Oman, not to mention the US’s current support of Iraqi forces bombing urban areas.

Mason goes on to explain that we live in a “world where the democracies on the security council no longer care about upholding international law and human rights.” Readers who graduated from primary school will no doubt be wondering just when the “democracies of the security council” – which for Mason is clearly the US, UK and France – cared about upholding “international law and human rights”. Was it in the 60s and early 70s when the United States did a pretty good job of destroying Vietnam? Was it between 1954 and 1962 when France fought a savage counterinsurgency war to deny Algeria its independence? Or perhaps it was during World War Two when the US and UK suppressed the popular Greek resistance that had played the key role in throwing out the German armed forces?

Turning to Syria, Mason notes “the West refuses to aid the secular and moderate forces [rebels].” This is flatly false. Since before May 2012 the US has been helping to arm, train and fund the rebels in Syria. In March 2013 the New York Times quoted an expert who estimated 3,500 tons of military equipment had been sent to the rebels by Arab Governments and Turkey with assistance from the CIA. In February 2014 The National newspaper, citing Syrian opposition sources, noted “The United States has increased direct funding to rebel groups fighting in Damascus and southern Syria” with US officials “handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars to Syrian rebel commanders in Jordan”. This publicly available information means either Mason is straight out lying to readers or he is ignorant of hundreds of articles that have reported US support for the rebels. Neither option reflects well on Mason.

Other howlers litter the blog: Sunnis in Iraq have been protesting against the perceived sectarianism of the Maliki Government” [my emphasis added]; the present disaster in the Middle East “has resulted from America’s failed attempt to create what Bush senior called ‘the new world order’”; and despite experts and reports throwing doubt on the official US-UK-French narrative, Mason is certain Assad carried out the chemical weapons attack on 21 August 2013. Furthermore, Mason doesn’t just pin the blame on “Assad’s Government” but “Assad” personally – which is even more difficult to prove.

So what conclusions can we make from a close reading of two of Mason’s recent articles on the Middle East? First, it’s important to register that the half-formed, contradictory and ignorant thinking on display is the work of someone who is seen as one of the most critical, radical broadcast journalists working in the UK today. That I, writing this in my spare time, can so easily highlight Mason’s obvious factual errors and his evidence-free Western power-friendly assumptions is worrying to say the least. Second, we need to be clear that to gain a good understanding of the world – how it works, its history, its power relationships and possible solutions – requires us to go beyond the mainstream television news. Beyond Channel 4 News. And beyond Paul Mason.

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