Tag Archives: Peter Tatchell

Escalating the war: the West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria

Escalating the war: the West’s responsibility for the slaughter in Syria
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 January 2018

Despite the carnage and intense anger created by the US-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and Pakistan, many prominent commentators and politicians have repeatedly pushed for the West to step up its intervention in Syria.

In 2012 Emile Hokayem, a Senior Fellow for Middle East Security at the Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote an article titled Arm Syrian Rebels To Enable Political Solution. Three years later human rights activist Peter Tatchell was campaigning for what he calls “Syrian democratic forces” to be given anti-aircraft missiles, and Kurdish forces to be supplied with “heavy artillery, anti-tank & anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS.” More recently, Charles Lister and Dominic Nelson from the Middle East Institute thinktank in Washington, DC argued the US needs to continue to support its proxies in Syria “as a durable source of pressure on the regime in Damascus.”

The problem with this argument is that the academic literature shows “in general, external support for rebels almost always makes wars longer, bloodier and harder to resolve”, as Professor Marc Lynch, Director of the Project on Middle East Political Science at George Washington University, explained in 2014. Max Abrahms, Professor of Political Science at Northeastern University, concurs, recently co-authoring an article in the Los Angeles Times which also noted “the conflict literature makes clear that external support for the opposition tends to exacerbate and extend civil wars”.

For example, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and William Reed from the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland examined the data from 218 cases of civil war extending from 1990 to 2011. Their conclusion? “We find that conflicts in which the rebel group received external support from a third party lasted significantly longer than civil wars that did not involve external support.”

And it’s not just academics in their ivory towers. In 2013, there was a flurry of warnings about arming the rebels in Syria. “More arms would only mean more deaths and destruction”, noted then United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Two former NATO Secretary-Generals wrote an article in the New York Times arguing “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”. Many NGOs were equally opposed. “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths”, noted Oxfam America, while the women’s rights organisation MADRE stated “funnelling more weapons to the opposition” would “further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.”

The US ignored the warnings from senior academics, analysts and organisations with years of experience of dealing with conflicts, and instead worked with the UK, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the rebels in Syria, according to then US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016.

And as predicted by the two former heads of NATO above, this increase in support provoked the Syrian government and their Russian and Iranian allies to escalate their own involvement in the conflict. This is because, as Julien Barnes-Dacey, a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in February 2016, “A central story of the Syrian conflict has been the cycle of escalations and counter-escalations in the continued pursuit of victory by both sides”.

For instance, in an October 2015 article titled Did US Weapons Supplied To Syrian Rebels Draw Russia Into The Conflict? the Washington Post noted that TOW anti-tank missiles delivered to the rebels by the US and its allies  were “so successful… in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer’.” The report goes on to quote Oubai Shahbandar, a Dubai-based consultant who previously worked with the Syrian opposition: “A primary driving factor in Russia’s calculus [to militarily intervene in September 2015] was the realization that the Assad regime was militarily weakening and in danger of losing territory in northwestern Syria. The TOWs played an outsize role in that”.

Confirming the veracity of the earlier warnings about the West arming the rebels, last year Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, explained “America has prolonged the civil war and has abetted the terrible destruction”, and “destabilised the region”. The death and destruction has been enormous. In 2016 United Nations Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura estimated 400,000 people had been killed in the conflict, while the UN reports more than half of all Syrians have been fled their homes – an estimated 5 million have left the country and more than 6 million are internally displaced.

The US and UK governments, then, consciously chose to escalate the conflict in Syria, knowing it would likely increase the level of violence and the number of civilian and combatant deaths, as well as making a peaceful resolution more unlikely.

It’s an unpalatable conclusion that jars with the liberal idea of the West’s ‘basic benevolence’, though one that is backed up by the evidence and elementary logic. And it is a conclusion you will be hard pressed to find in any other British national newspaper.

Countering Peter Tatchell’s pro-war anti-war arguments on Syria

Countering Peter Tatchell’s pro-war anti-war arguments on Syria
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
15 January 2016

I have a lot of respect for Peter Tatchell’s principled and extensive human rights activism. However, when it comes to Syria many of his positions seem to be confused and counterproductive – and arguably pro-Western military intervention, even if he doesn’t realise this himself. Some of his recent criticisms of the Stop the War Coalition (STWC or STW) have also been illogical (though, of course, I oppose him being manhandled at the recent STWC protest). As Interventions Watch blog has noted, Tatchell is “essentially agitating for military intervention in Syria, while claiming the mantle of the anti-war movement, and smearing the actual one”. Therefore, like Interventions Watch (who I heavily cite in this blog), I think it is important to counter his assertions.

I set out his arguments and some basic responses below.

Tatchell, Twitter, 13 December 2015: “STW refuses to organise or support demos against bombing by Assad & Russia and against Iran & Hezbollah intervention”

As a British citizen I share responsibility for the actions of the UK government and its allies. This is because I pay my taxes and, more importantly, have immeasurably more power to influence UK government policy than I do the Russian or Syrian governments, who do not represent me in anyway and for whose actions I have no control over. As Noam Chomsky has noted: “It’s a very simple ethical point: you are responsible for the predictable consequences of your actions, you’re not responsible for the predictable consequences of somebody else’s actions.”

The same, I would argue, goes for anti-war movements around the world – their primary concern should be the actions of their own governments. This is especially true when your government is the closest ally of the most powerful nation on earth, and is itself one of the major players on the world stage.

Tatchell goes one further, castigating STWC for not protesting against ISIS (Islamic State). Of course people should be free to demonstrate against ISIS in the UK but I can’t think of a more wasteful use of activist energy when you consider ISIS is despised by all of the UK media (see Andrew Neil’s responseto the Paris attack on the supposedly neutral BBC), all political parties and 99 percent of the general public. Who, then, is a protest against ISIS in the UK supposed to influence and persuade?

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “John Rees of Stop The War says I was at its event last night with people urging UK bombing of Syria. Photo shows lie”

In fact video footage from the relatively small demonstration against Jeremy Corbyn attending the STWC dinner show that if anyone is lying it is Tatchell, with one banner reading “Thanks to Britain for the airstrikes”.

More broadly, at the demonstration Tatchell stood next to journalist James Bloodworth, who is a supporter of Western military action in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a defender of US drone strikes in the region – actions which, of course, have led to hundreds of civilian deaths and likely energised extremist groups. Bloodworth also supports military action against ISIS in Iraq. Tatchell claims Bloodworth doesn’t support drone strikes.

Tatchell, Twitter, 6 October 2015: “A UN No-Fly-Zone & civilian safe havens would stop Assad killing innocents, deescalate conflict & save lives”

We need to be clear what a no-fly zone is. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander and Head of US European Command: “I know it sounds stark, but what I always tell people when they talk to me about a no-fly zone is… it’s basically to start a war with that country because you are going to have to go in and kinetically take out their air defense capability”.

General Carter Ham, the head of AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) during the 2011 Libyan intervention: “We should make no bones about it. It first entails killing a lot of people and destroying the Syrian air defenses and those people who are manning those systems. And then it entails destroying the Syrian air force, preferably on the ground, in the air if necessary. This is a violent combat action that results in lots of casualties and increased risk to our own personnel”.

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “Give the Syrian democratic forces anti-aircraft missiles. That’s the way to create a no-bomb zone without bombing” and “Kurds need heavy artillery, anti-tank & anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS. More effective than bombing”

These tweets echoes an article Tatchell recently published in which he argued 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.

Tatchell’s support for arming sections of the violent resistance to the Assad government and ISIS is opposed by a plethora of NGOs, human rights organisations and expert testimony (I understand this list is very long but I think it’s important to show just how out of step Tatchell is with organisations such as the United Nations, Oxfam and Amnesty International):

– “It is essential to stem the flow of arms pouring into the country. It is irresponsible for foreign powers and groups to give continued military support to parties in Syria that are committing atrocities and flagrantly violating international principles of human rights and international law. I urge the Security Council to impose an arms embargo.” – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary-General, 20 June 2015

– “The ongoing provision of arms to the Syrian government and to its opponents feeds additional violence. Any further militarization of the conflict must be avoided at all costs.” – Navi Pillay, UN human rights chief, 2 July 2012

– “The threat of arming the rebels is unlikely to convince Assad to change his stance. Every time the rebels have made gains, the regime has been sent a vast supply of arms, financial support and even fighters from its key international allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah… Arming the rebels is unlikely to strengthen the so-called moderates either.” – Dr Christopher Phillips, Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House, 28 May 2013

– “Western arming of rebels is ill-advised given its likely limited impact on the ground, encouragement of escalation and maximalism, and the inability to guarantee in whose hands weapons will end up.” – Julien Barnes-Dacey and Daniel Levy, European Council on Foreign Relations, 24 May 2013

– “Arming rebel and opposition forces will have unforeseen long-term consequences for Syria and the region and will not assist in finding a non-military solution to this terrible situation.” – Campaign Against Arms Trade, 29 May 2013

– “Sending arms is unlikely to provide a solution”. – David Owen, former UK Foreign Secretary and former EU Co-Chair of the peace negotiations in the former Yugoslavia, 4 May 2013

–“Syria is already awash in weapons that will be circulating in the area for years to come. Funneling more arms to the opposition would fuel their brutal battle tactics, intensify the war, and further diminish chances of a democratic outcome for Syria.” – Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of MADRE, an international women’s human rights organisation, 9 May 2013

– “Providing more weapons will mean prolonged fighting and more civilian deaths, more long-term damage to infrastructure and the economy, and greater poverty in Syria. Instead, the United States and international community should focus on increasing diplomatic outreach, demonstrating to all sides the imperative of reaching a political solution.” – Oxfam America, 1 May 2013

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 militia). “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. When I raised the report with Tatchell, he replied: “This action was wrong but exceptional & untypical of YPG. Overall, they have a good record of protecting civilians”.

So, to summarise, we have the strange phenomenon of a self-professed anti-imperialist, anti-war, human rights activist urging the West to act in ways that would, according to experts and respected human rights organisations, increase the level of violence, prolong the war, and would lead to the West arming groups that have carried out actions that amount to war crimes, according to Amnesty International.

(As an aside, it is interesting to note that in calling for the arming of rebel groups in Syria, 2015 Peter Tatchell is opposed by 2013 Peter Tatchell, who carried a placard with the slogan “UN arms embargo” at an anti-war demonstration. It also contradicts the person standing a few feet from Tatchell at the protest against Corbyn attending the Stop the War dinner who is holding a placard that also calls for a “UN arms embargo”.)

Tatchell, Twitter, 12 December 2015: “Kurds need… anti-aircraft missiles against ISIS. More effective than bombing”

As ISIS doesn’t have an airforce, I tweeted Tatchell asking him why the Kurds need anti-aircraft missiles. His response? “ISIS may capture helicopters. Democratic Syrians need anti-aircraft missiles to defend against Assads bombing”.

So, according to Tatchell, we should provide the Kurds with anti-aircraft missiles in the unlikely event ISIS capture and are able to run and pilot attack helicopters. Attack helicopters which Tatchell presumably thinks ISIS will be able to fly freely despite the US, Russian, UK and French aircraft dominating the airspace over significant part of Syria.

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?”