Tag Archives: Patrick Cockburn

No, the US has not made ‘well-meaning efforts to broker peace’ in Syria

No, the US has not made ‘well-meaning efforts to broker peace’ in Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Middle East Eye
9 May 2017

Testifying to the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs last month, the highly-respected Syria analyst Charles Lister asserted the Obama Administration had made “repeated, well-meaning efforts to broker peace” in Syria. This belief in the “basic benevolence” of the US underpins much of the mainstream commentary on the ongoing conflict. For example, in 2013 the Guardian’s foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall noted that Obama “cannot count on Russian support to fix Syria”.

Embarrassingly for Lister and Tisdall the historical record clearly shows that far from being a “well-meaning” broker for peace, the US (and UK) have in actual fact repeatedly blocked a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Syria.

A key date is 2 August 2012 – the day Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, resigned after failing to reach a peace deal with many of the participants in the war at talks in Geneva.

Writing in 2015, Professor Avi Shlaim, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Oxford University, provided some important context for the collapse of the talks. “British ministers [following the lead of the US] keep repeating the mantra that Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution. In truth he is a very large part of the problem but also an indispensable part of any negotiated solution”, Shlaim noted. “Western insistence on regime change in Damascus sabotaged his [Annan’s] efforts and forced him to resign.” Professor Hugh Roberts, the former Director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, agreed with Shlaim’s analysis. “Western policy has been a disgrace”, Roberts argued in the London Review of Books. “They sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting.”

The West’s negative role at the 2012 Syrian peace talks has been confirmed by Andrew Mitchell, the former British Secretary of State for International Development, Chatham House’s Dr Christopher Phillips*, and veteran foreign correspondents Jonathan Steele and Patrick Cockburn. Amazingly, in 2015 former US Secretary of State John Kerry himself admitted the US demanding Assad’s departure upfront in the peace process was “in fact, prolonging the war.”

On 17 August 2012 it was announced the seasoned diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi would succeed Annan as the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria. Less than two years later Brahimi himself resigned after also failing to achieve a peaceful settlement to the fighting. “I would put a lot of blame on the outside forces – the forces, the governments and others who were supporting one side or the other. None of these countries had the interests of the Syrian people as the first priority… everybody is to blame”, Brahimi told Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan in March 2016. “The entire world. What did the Americans do? What did the French do? What did the British do?”

As Brahimi’s testimony hints at, other actors also bear a heavy responsibility for the breakdown of the talks and the continuation of the ongoing conflict, especially the Syrian Government and its backers Russia and Iran. However, as a British citizen my focus in this article is the United States, the UK’s closet ally.

In addition to playing a blocking role in the peace talks, by supplying – as Kerry told Syrian activists last year – an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the Syrian rebels and working with its regional allies to send in arms, the US has played a key role in lengthening and escalating the conflict. The Syrian specialist Patrick Seale was fully aware of “the central contradiction in US policy” in 2012: “Although it says it supports the Annan plan, it is unashamedly undermining it by helping to arms the rebels” a depressing reality many expert voices warned about in 2013, including the UN Secretary-General and two former NATO Secretary-Generals.

Frustratingly, despite this slew of first-hand testimony and expert analysis, it is Lister’s evidence-free misrepresentation of the US role that informs the popular understanding of Western involvement in Syria – which suggests we are in the midst of a huge propaganda war directed at Western publics. And even more frustratingly, it is likely to stay this way because the inconvenient facts around the US’s role in the Syrian bloodbath challenge a number of media-fuelled shibboleths: from the portrayal of Assad and Putin as the only ‘bad guys’ in the war to the oft repeated myth of US non-intervention in the conflict. Hell, if the US’s real role in Syria became better understood then people might also start asking awkward questions about other recent conflicts, such as Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011, where the US has presented itself as sincerely seeking peace when it has really been pushing for war.

In the end one particularly ugly conclusion is inescapable: if the West has been involved in blocking peace initiatives and therefore extending the fighting, it also means the West’s is partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed in the ongoing slaughter and the mammoth refugee crisis – a world away from the US being a well-meaning peace broker.

*In his 2016 book ‘The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East’ Dr Christopher Phillips notes “at the Geneva conference in summer 2012, neither the US nor Russia was willing to prioritise the prevention of conflict over their positions on Assad’s future.” (page 103)

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.

An “inclusive and credible” Iraqi government? Obama vs. Reality

An “inclusive and credible” Iraqi government? Obama vs. Reality
By Ian Sinclair
13 November 2014

Announcing an increase in the tempo of the US-led military action against the Islamic State (aka ISIL) on CBS’s Facing The Nation on 9 November 2014, President Obama stated:

“What we knew was that phase one was getting an Iraqi government that was inclusive and credible, and we now have done that. And so now what we’ve done is rather than just try to halt ISIL’s momentum, we’re now in a position to start going on some offense.”

As it is being used to justify an expansion of the US-led military action in Iraq, it is worth examining Obama’s claim that the current Iraqi government is “inclusive and credible”. Here, then, are some quotes from Iraq experts and observers on the nature of the government of Haider al-Abadi, who replaced Nouri al-Maliki as Iraq’s president in September 2014:

Patrick Cockburn, veteran Middle East correspondent and author of ‘The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising’, 25 September 2014: “Mr [David] Cameron blames all this on the mis-government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose sectarian and kleptocratic rule has just ended. But it is doubtful if much has changed since Mr Maliki was replaced by the more personable Haider al-Abadi, whose government is still dominated by Shia religious parties. Mr Cameron’s stated belief that he is supporting the creation of a government that is inclusive of Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians is a pipe dream.”

Borzou Daragahi, Middle East and North Africa correspondent, Financial Times, 26 September 2014: “Despite commitments by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to disband the [Shia] militias, they grow stronger, bolder and more politically influential.”

Erin Evers, Iraqi Researcher, Human Rights Watch, 26 September 2014: “Residents [of the Iraqi town of Latifiyya] told me that Shia militias, still operating under the control of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki [now a Vice-President of Iraq], are laying siege to the town, especially the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq militia. Sunni residents of other towns to the north accused that group and other militias of carrying out summary executions there after the militias took control in the wake of US air strikes against the Islamic State.”

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, Iraqi journalist, The Guardian, 9 October 2014:The problem in Iraq… is it’s not a problem of a person. It’s not Abadi versus Maliki. The whole institution, the whole system, is so rotten to the core. Every single soldier is appointed after paying a bribe. Every military officer is appointed after paying a bribe. And the bribes are still being paid.”

Sarah Margon, Washington director, Human Rights Watch, 24 October 2014: “[An] imam made clear that the Iraqi air force is still using indiscriminate ‘barrel bombs’ to ‘go after ISIS’ in Fallujah, despite instructions from Baghdad to stop using them. Other governments, including that of the United States, have condemned the use of these horrendously destructive bombs across the border in Syria but have said nothing about them in Iraq.”

Tirana Hassan, Senior Emergencies Researcher, Human Rights Watch, 3 November: “While the Iraqi central government has virtually no formal authority over the militias, who act as a law unto themselves, some key politicians in Baghdad have strong alliances to individual militias. In October, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi appointed Mohammed Salem al-Ghabban – a prominent member of the Badr Organization, a Shiite political group that controls one of the largest and most infamous militias – as interior minister. Despite being almost completely unaccountable to any official ministry, the Shiite militias have been tasked by the government with a key role in the war against the Islamic State.”

Fazel Hawramy and Luke Harding, The Guardian, 13 November 2014: “According to Amnesty International, Shia militias have abducted and killed scores of Sunni civilians in recent months, and enjoy total impunity for what are ‘war crimes’. It says the Iraqi government under prime minister Haider al-Abadi has supported and armed the groups, in effect fuelling a new and dangerous cycle of lawlessness and sectarian mayhem.”

So, to summarise, the new Iraqi government that Obama said is “inclusive and credible” is horribly corrupt, is continuing to conduct air strikes on Sunni-dominated areas in Iraq – sometimes with barrel bombs – and includes key figures connected to the emboldened Shia militias, which have been carrying out ethnic cleansing against the Sunni population with impunity.

The dangers of all this are made clear by Middle East researcher David Wearing: “The West is going ahead with military support for Baghdad as though replacing Maliki with al-Abadi ticks all the required boxes in itself. It doesn’t. Al-Abadi comes from the same party as Maliki – a fact that won’t be lost on many Sunni Arabs – and the danger of supporting him in advance of the required political transformation is that it disincentivises Baghdad from seriously addressing the core political issues.”

And, as Human Rights Watch’s Sarah Margon, argues: “By turning a virtual blind eye to the abuses committed by Iraqi government forces and its proxy militias, key partners [the US, UK etc.] may be helping to push reluctant Sunnis into the Islamic State camp.”

“We are supporting a democratic state”: Propaganda and the new Iraq War

“We are supporting a democratic state”: Propaganda and the new Iraq War
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 October 2014

We are in the middle of a propaganda war and you are the target.

To gain public support for bombing Iraq the Government has deployed a range of persuasive strategies, stretching from the extremely crude to the dangerously subtle. First the obvious ones. On Thursday 25 September – the day before the parliamentary vote to authorise the bombing campaign – police carried out a number of so-called anti-terrorist raids arresting nine people, including the well-known preacher Anjem Choudary. On the same day, news broke that the Iraqi Government had ‘credible’ intelligence Islamic State militants planned to launch attacks on the subway systems in Paris and New York City. Both scares, of course, have now been forgotten, though one can’t help think they served their purpose.

Like the ‘Heathrow terrorist plot’ in the run up to the 2003 Iraq War, the recent headline-grabbing announcements likely elicited deep scepticism in many people. However, the Government is also employing far more insidious and successful propaganda, much of which has seeped into and framed the media-driven narrative of the war. One such propaganda meme is the argument we are acting at the request of a “sovereign state” (David Cameron) and/or “democratic state” (Ed Miliband). This has been repeated ad nauseam by those backing the bombing with very little push back.

While this sound bite-sized justification may technically be true and therefore provides cover under international law, it’s worth considering what it misses out.

First, it conceals the deeply authoritarian and undemocratic nature of the present Iraqi Government and the West’s role in helping to create it. Writing in The Guardian in June, Professor Toby Dodge, an Iraq specialist at the London School of Economics, noted Iraq’s former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “first came to power in April 2006 in a deal brokered by the then British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and the American secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.” This, according to Dodge, “was an Anglo-American attempt to create a facade of democracy in the midst of a vicious post-invasion civil war.” Dodge went onto explain that though Maliki lost the 2010 election the US “backed the continuation of Maliki’s rule… in the name of predictability and order.” Echoing the sub-title of Dodge’s 2013 book on Iraq – ‘From war to a new authoritarianism’ – David Wearing, a researcher on the Middle East at SOAS, notes “Maliki set about concentrating power – particularly power over armed forces, internal security forces and Shia militias – in his hands, and governing on a narrow sectarian basis, eliciting some frustration from Washington but still, ultimately, enjoying its support”. In 2013 Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions index ranked Iraq 171st out of 177 countries. The whole Iraqi system, argues award-winning Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, is “rotten to the core. Every single soldier is appointed after paying a bribe. Every military officer is appointed after paying a bribe.”

And before we go further, let’s not forget the double standards of the UK government. “It is hypocritical for Mr Cameron to pretend that US and UK intervention are in support of democratic, accountable and inclusive governments when he is in a coalition with the last theocratic absolute monarchies on earth”, argues the veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn about the UK allying itself with the Gulf states.

Cameron and Miliband’s justification also ignores the recent aggressive and criminal military actions of the Iraqi Government – armed throughout by the United States.

In May 2014 Human Rights Watch reported the Iraqi Government was dropping “barrel bombs on residential neighbourhoods of Fallujah and surrounding areas” and had “repeatedly struck Fallujah General Hospital with mortar shells and other munitions”. According to the report “the recurring strikes on the main hospital, including with direct fire weapons, strongly suggest that Iraqi forces have targeted it, which would constitute a serious violation of the laws of war”. In June 2014 HRW noted the Iraqi Government had carried out indiscriminate air strikes in other cities too – Beiji, Mosul, Tikrit and al-Sherqat – killing at least 75 civilians. Speaking about the Iraqi Government in 2013, Dodge noted “torture is endemic.”

Of course, Maliki was forced out of office in September 2014 but many Iraq observers hold little hope in his successor. Cockburn: “It is doubtful if much has changed since Mr Maliki was replaced by the more personable Haider al-Abadi, whose government is still dominated by Shia religious parties.” David Cameron’s “stated belief that he is supporting the creation of a government that is inclusive of Sunni, Shia, Kurds and Christians” is “a pipe dream”, Cockburn argues.

For example, though Al-Abadi publicly called a halt to the bombing of civilian areas, HRW’s Iraq Researcher Erin Evers told me the bombing has continued. More broadly, the Financial Times recently explained Shia militias have grown “stronger, bolder and more politically influential” since al-Abadi became Prime Minister. Maliki himself is now Iraq’s Vice-President. Evers recently reported that Shia militias under the control of the former Iraqi Prime Minister are currently laying siege to Latifiyya, a town just south of Baghdad. The militias have carried out summary executions and bulldozed Sunni areas causing “a broader humanitarian crisis” with many women and children unable to access food or desalinated water. Wearing is one of the few UK analysts to take seriously the threat from the Shia militias: “If Shia troops wade into Sunni towns and cities with the USAF and the RAF effectively providing cover, or at least having softened up their targets beforehand, the West won’t be preventing another Rwanda, it will be enabling one.”

Unsurprisingly then, though Sunnis living in Mosul and Raqqa do not like Islamic State, Cockburn explains “they are even more frightened of resurgent Iraqi or Syrian armies accompanied by murderous pro-government militias subduing their areas with the assistance of allied air strikes.”

All this leads to another criticism of the simplistic ‘we are acting to support a democratic government’ propaganda meme – that by refusing to engage with the reality of the present Iraqi state, it ignores a key reason for the rise of Islamic State and the responsibility of the West.

Writing in the latest edition of Survival, the journal of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Dodge argues the Islamic State’s advance across northern Iraq “was the direct result of the contemporary flaws with the political system set up after the regime change of 2003.” Or as Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN special envoy to Syria, recently noted, the Islamic State was “originally and still is mainly an Iraqi phenomenon. And that is a direct result of the invasion of Iraq in 2003”.

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