Tag Archives: UK foreign policy

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah

Witnessing the BBC’s Omissions on Fallujah
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
3 February 2020

“The chief problem in historical honesty is not outright lying, it is omission or de-emphasis of important data”, US historian Howard Zinn says in You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, the 2004 documentary about his life.

A good example of this truism is a recent episode of Witness History on the BBC World Service – with US Colonel Andrew Milburn recounting his time fighting in what BBC presenter Alex Last calls “the Battle for Fallujah” in Iraq.

In the short radio piece – each segment of Witness History is just nine minutes long – Last provides some context for listeners: with the 2003 US-UK invasion and subsequent occupation creating significant opposition, the city of Fallujah, in the western province of Anbar, had become an insurgency stronghold. In an attempt to subdue the resistance, the US undertook a huge assault on Fallujah in November 2004 – involving 20,000 troops backed by tanks and aircraft.

With a population of 250,000, Last notes there was estimated to be around 2,500 fighters in the city at the time of the attack, along with some 20-30,000 civilians.

“Honestly, it was rare that you saw civilians”, Milburn says about the urban warfare he experienced. “There was a kind of feeling ‘Look there aren’t civilians here, we have got tanks, we have got anti-tank weapons, let’s just use these instead of sending guys into buildings.’”

“That is when most of the destruction happened”, he remembers. “By the end of the battle [in December 2004]… it looked like the second world war. It looked like Dresden or Stalingrad”.

The US and Iraqi government forces lost around 100 killed and 500 wounded, notes Last, with “conservative estimates” of “hundreds of Iraqi civilians” killed.

“It was a pyrrhic victory”, Milburn concludes. “Even as we won the city and we killed thousands of the insurgents there were many, many more being recruited – largely by pictures of us rubbling a city”.

As these quotes suggest, critical consumers can occasionally gleam some useful information from BBC reporting. However, Witness History’s focus is on the US experience, with all the problems that comes with this.

Last’s assertion that 20-30,000 civilians were left in Fallujah is a very low estimate, with a statement at the time from the top US general in Iraq, George W. Casey, suggesting the US military believed 60-100,000 civilians remained in the city at the beginning of the attack. The essential 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention by Newcastle University’s Dr Florian Zollmann also calls into question the BBC’s estimate of civilian deaths. After conducting a detailed analysis of media coverage of Fallujah, Zollmann suggests the total number of civilian dead was likely around 2,000. For example, in January 2005 the director of the main hospital in Fallujah reported there had been 700 bodies recovered from just one third of the city, 550 of them women and children.

Moreover, the programme omitted any mention of arguably the most important aspect of the carnage – that US forces carried out what would be considered war crimes if they were carried out by Official Enemy states like Iran, Syria or Russia. Indeed in the introduction to his 2007 verbatim play Fallujah academic and playwright Jonathan Holmes argues the US contravened 70 individual articles of the Geneva Conventions in Fallujah.

The scene was set for the slaughter by US Lt Col Gary Brandl, who led the 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment into the fight with these words: “The enemy has got a face. He’s called Satan. He’s in Falluja. And we’re going to destroy him.”

Media reports at the time noted the US military and their Iraqi allies cut off the electricity and water supplies to the city, and, in an early operation, targeted Fallujah’s General Hospital. “Considered a refuge for insurgents and a center of propaganda”, the New York Times reported US Special forces and Iraqi troops smashed in doors, with patients and medical staff “rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.”

Testifying at the 2008 Winter Solider hearings, US Marine Michael Leduc explained how the rules of engagement changed for Fallujah – “now, we were operating under the assumption that everyone was hostile.” His battalion officer encouraged Marines to kill anyone using a cell phone and anyone they suspected of “manoeuvring against” them. The US implemented “a strict night time shoot-to-kill curfew”, The Times reported, with “anyone spotted in the soldiers’ night vision sights… shot.”

“Every weapon available in our arsenal short of nukes is turned on Fallujah”, US Army Sergeant David Bellavia wrote in his memoir. This included White Phosphorus, with a 2005 edition of the journal Field Artillery confirming its use in Fallujah by publishing testimony from a US officer: “We used it… as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents in trench lines and spider holes when we could not get effects on them with HE [high explosive].”

With the bloodbath in full swing, the US military blocked aid from reaching the city, with a convoy of food and medicine brought by the Iraqi Red Crescent refused entry to the city, according to the Guardian.

Furthermore, Associated Press reported that “hundreds of men trying to flee the assault on Fallujah have been turned back by US troops following orders to allow only women, children and the elderly to leave”.

Also unmentioned by Witness History is the key role played by UK forces. The British infantry battalion The Black Watch was redeployed from southern Iraq to the area surrounding Fallujah – to replace US marines sent into the city. “They have been used to block off insurgents running weapons into Baghdad and to plug escape routes for those fleeing the US assault on Fallujah”, a November 2004 BBC News article reported.

BBC World Service journalists may see themselves as part of an “impartial, accurate, trustworthy” news organisation, as a former World Service director once said. However, in reality their reporting, such as this episode of Witness History, often follows a propagandistic framing of Western foreign policy.

As Warwick University’s Professor Susan Carruthers noted in her 2000 book The Media At War, in wartime “the media have generally served the military rather well”.

Zollmann confirms this maxim very much applies to Fallujah, with his study comparing the US offensive in the Iraqi city to human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013).

His analysis shows how Fallujah was “framed in terms of reciprocal war and fighting” – remember the title of the Witness History episode: “The Battle for Fallujah”.  There was some critical media coverage, he notes, but this “was placed in an ideological context, which still assumed that ‘allied’ countries constitute legitimate and positive forces.”

This “politicised discourse” has huge ramifications, he argues, serving “to obscure the well-documented fact” US actions in Fallujah “also shared the properties of massacres and war crimes.”

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, is Zollmann’s damning conclusion. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

With the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media downplaying US-UK crimes it falls to those concerned citizens who are aware of the real history of Fallujah to make sure this dark chapter in US-UK foreign policy is never forgotten.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?

Has anything changed since Katharine Gun’s momentous leak against the Iraq War?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
22 October 2019

Directed by Gavin Hood and starring Keira Knightley, new film Official Secrets tells the story of Katharine Gun’s brave actions to try to stop the illegal US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Working as a translator at the secretive intelligence organisation Government Communications Headquarters (GHCQ) in Cheltenham, on 31 January 2003 the then 28-year old Gun was copied in to an email from Frank Koza at the US National Security Agency (NSA). With the US and UK facing strong opposition at the United Nations to its aggressive stance on Iraq, Koza explained how the NSA was mounting a ‘dirty tricks‘ operation to spy on members of the UN Security Council, in an attempt to gain support for an invasion, and were looking for support from GCHQ.

Increasingly concerned about the rush to war, Gun leaked the memo to journalist Yvonne Ridley, who passed it onto the Observer‘s Martin Bright. It was published in the paper on 2 March 2003, seventeen days before the invasion. Gun was soon taken into police custody and charged under the Official Secrets Act, though the government mysteriously dropped the case the day before her trial was to start.

US whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers about the Vietnam War in 1971, proclaimed Gun’s actions the “most important and courageous leak I have ever seen.”

“It was the first leak that was pre-emptive. Most leaks are after the event“, Gun told me, when I interviewed her for the Morning Star in 2008.

Gun’s whistleblowing likely strengthened the case against the US and UK at the UN – the Security Council did not authorise the invasion. The collapse of her trial also triggered then International Development Secretary Clare Short to publicly note British security services spied on UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s office in the run up to the Iraq war.

Aswell as telling Gun’s story, the film focuses on how the Observer dealt with receiving the leaked memo – a fascinating story also told by investigative journalist Nick Davies in his 2008 book Flat Earth News. With the newspaper taking a pro-war stance under Editor Roger Alton and Political Editor Kamal Ahmed, Davies shows there was a crucial delay in reporting on the memo.

One reason for this was “the ‘circle of resistance’ to anti-war stories”, he writes. Ahmed, who was very close to Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell and was “an open advocate” for the government’s position on Iraq, was “running round the office going ‘Hitler diaries, Hitler diaries’”, according to one source.

“If we had gone with it two or three weeks earlier, it might have made a difference”, one frustrated Observer journalist told Davies. “There was an ideological resistance to it. It could have stopped the war.”

There are interesting similarities between these tumultuous events and the activities of the intelligence services and the media in the successive 16 years.

The US and UK, it seems, continue to spy on the United Nations and other international organisations. Reporting on documents leaked by NSA contractor Edward Snowden, in December 2013 the New York Times revealed “more than 1,000 targets of American and British surveillance in recent years”, including “multiple United Nations Missions in Geneva” such as UNICEF and the United National Disarmament Research. In his must-read 2014 book about Snowden’s leaks, No Place To Hide, Glenn Greenwald highlights how a document from 2010 shows the US spied on eight members of the Security Council regarding resolutions on Iran. “The espionage gave the US goverment valuable information about those countries’ voting intentions, giving Washington an edge when talking to other members of the Security Council”, Greenwald notes.

Regarding the UK, “in the mainstream, the official view is that the British government provide enduring support to the UN”, historian Mark Curtis notes in his 2004 book Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses. “The opposite is true: it is clear from the historical record that the UN has traditionally been seen as a major threat.”

Curtis continues: “For the past 50 years, the essence of British strategy has been to ensure the UN’s failure to prevent or condemn Britain’s, or its allies’, acts of aggression.”

Secret documents published by Wikileaks in 2015 show “Britain conducted secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN human rights council (UNHRC)”, according to the Guardian. The Independent in 2017 and the Guardian in 2016 also reported the UK had blocked a UN inquiry into Saudi war crimes in Yemen. In March of this year the Guardian reported the UK was set to “oppose motions criticising rights abuses [by Israel] in the West Bank and Gaza that are brought to the UN’s human rights council”.

And, like in 2003, the liberal media continue to be hugely comprised when it comes to reporting on the actions of the US and UK intelligence services.

As one of the main outlets for Snowden’s leaks, the Guardian – seen as the most anti-establishment national newspaper by many – came under intense pressure from the UK government, Matt Kennard and Curtis set out in their recent Daily Maverick long read.

This coercion has effectively neutralised the paper’s adversarial reporting of the ‘security state’, they argue. Their reporting is based on minutes from the Ministry of Defence-run Defence and Security Media Advisory Committee, AKA the D-Notice Committee, which defines its purpose as preventing “inadvertent public disclosure of information that would compromise UK military and intelligence operations”.

In July 2013, six weeks after the first Snowden leaks were published, GCHQ officials visited the Guardian’s offices in King’s Cross, London to oversee the destruction of laptops containing the Snowden documents. Though the action was completely symbolic (the documents were also stored outside of the UK, presumably in the Guardian’s US office) something changed.

“The Guardian had begun to seek and accept D-Notice advice not to publish certain highly sensitive details and since then the dialogue [with the committee] had been reasonable and improving”, the D-Notice Committee minutes for November 2013 noted. Incredibly the Guardian journalist who had helped to destroy the laptops – Deputy Editor Paul Johnson – took a seat on the D-Notice Committee itself, attending from 2014 to 2018.

Exclusive Guardian interviews with the heads of MI6 and MI5 followed, with veteran, often critical ‘national security’ journalists – David Leigh, Richard Norton-Taylor, Ewen MacAskill and Ian Cobain – replaced by less-experienced and knowledgeable reporters under current editor Katherine Viner. “It seems they’ve got rid of everyone who seemed to cover the security services and military in an adversarial way”, a Guardian journalist told Kennard and Curtis.

And Kamal Ahmad, whose ‘journalism’ in 2002-3 Davies argues “meant Observer readers were slowly soaked in disinformation” about Iraq? Following a stint as the BBC’s Economic Editor, he is now Editorial Director at the corporation, where he is “responsible for shaping the BBC’s future editorial strategy, focusing on storytelling and explanatory journalism”.

One important lesson to come out of Gun’s extraordinary story is the importance of inspiration. Gun, for example, has explained that in the period before she leaked the NSA memo she read two books – War Plan Iraq by Peace News Editor Milan Rai and Target Iraq by Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich – which convinced her there was no case for war. And Snowden himself has said he was inspired to leak the NSA documents after watching The Most Dangerous Man in America, the 2009 documentary about Ellsberg.

So maybe, just maybe, the next important whistleblower will be sitting next to you in the cinema when you go and see Official Secrets.

Official Secrets is in cinemas from 18 October 2019.

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East

How the media covers-up the bloody reality of Western wars in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
10 August 2019

From what I can tell a new report from monitoring group Air Wars, concerning US media coverage of the US-led military interventions in Iraq and Syria since 2014, has been ignored by the entire British media, except for the Morning Star.

“News reporting on civilian casualties from international and US actions, was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict”, the study concludes.

The extraordinary depth of this Western power-friendly journalism is highlighted by Airwars’s survey of more than 900 US Department of Defense transcripts of press conferences. Incredibly the research “found that [US military] officials were… the first to raise civilian harm in three-quarters of the press conferences or briefings in which the issue was broached since 2014.”

This lack of coverage was linked by US journalists themselves to a variety of factors, including “the limited presence of reporters on-the-ground”, a news cycle dominated by US domestic politics and credibly sourcing claims of civilian casualties. However, these justifications ring somewhat hollow when you consider arguably the most interesting finding of the study: “Major US media were… five times more likely to report on civilian harm from Russian and Assad regime actions at Aleppo than they were from US and allied actions at Mosul” (the report notes “civilian harm outcomes” in Aleppo and Mosul “were often similar”).

So it turns out the US media does report on civilian casualties – as long as the civilians are harmed by Russian and Syrian government forces.

US writer and media critic Adam Johnson has humorously coined The North Korea Law of Journalism, in which “editorial standards are inversely proportional to a county’s enemy status”. If journalists are considering crimes committed by the US and its allies then “rock solid, smoking gun evidence” is usually required to run a story. In contrast, journalists can “pretty much make up whatever [they] want” with little or no evidence to back up their claims if they are criticising North Korea, and nations like Iran, Russia and Syria.

Though the Air Wars study only looked at US media, there are indications the British media also acts as a defacto “propaganda system” when it comes to reporting on Western intervention in the Middle East.

Take three well-known commentators working at two respected newspapers: The Times’s David Aaronovitch and Jonathan Freedland and George Monbiot at The Guardian. Monbiot is arguably the most radical journalist working in the mainstream media. No doubt all three of these experienced journalists see themselves as critically-minded, free-thinking writers.

Their Twitter feeds suggest a different story.

Culminating in December 2016, the battle for Aleppo involved Syrian government and (from September 2015) Russian forces unleashing hell on areas held by assorted rebel groups in the northern Syrian city.

Aaronovitch has tweeted about Aleppo 13 times. “Aleppo is Stalingrad” and the “destruction of Aleppo” is “awful” were two of his outraged hot takes.

Freedland tweeted about Aleppo six times up until December 2016.

Monbiot has tweeted about Aleppo nine times, according to Interventions Watch blog. “A monstrous crime against humanity” and “a crime beyond reckoning”, the enraged Monbiot commented.

Monbiot’s “response to events in another Syrian city, however, was markedly different”, Interventions Watch explains.

From June to October 2017 the US (with British support) led an intense assault on Raqqa, targeting the city being held by Islamic State with airstrikes and artillery barrages.

An April 2019 investigation by Amnesty International estimated the US-led coalition killed over 1,600 civilians during the assault. “Never before have I seen a city so completely devastated. Not just in one district area, but almost entirely”, Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, reported after visiting the city. “Think Dresden and you’d be close.”

“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told The Times in December 2018.

Monbiot’s response to this slaughter? Tumbleweed. “Monbiot *said nothing*. Not a word of condemnation, not a single attempt to highlight the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding, not even a passing mention, either as it was happening, or afterwards”, Interventions Watch note.

Likewise, Aaronovitch and Freedland have not tweeted one word about the US-UK bloodbath in Raqqa as far as I can tell.

This brief Twitter review echoes the findings of Dr Florian Zollmann, Lecturer in Journalism at Newcastle University, who analysed US, UK and German newspaper coverage of human rights abuses in Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2004), Libya (2011), Syria (2012) and Egypt (2013) for his 2017 book Media, Propaganda and the Politics of Intervention.

“If countries designated to be ‘enemy’ states of the West conduct human rights violations, the news media highlights these abuses and conveys demands for action to stop human rights abuses”, he notes. “If, on the other hand, Western states or their ‘allies’ are the perpetrators of human rights violations the news media employs significantly less investigatory zeal in its reporting and virtually no measures to stop abuses are conveyed.”

This systematic bias can only increase the worrying level of ignorance of UK foreign policy amongst the British public – a status quo the government and military will be more than happy with.

“There is a general policy by the MoD [Ministry of Defence] to keep the horror of what’s going on in Afghanistan out of the public domain, and that’s probably for political reasons”, a senior British officer told the Sunday Telegraph in 2008. “If the real truth were known it would have a huge impact on Army recruiting and the government would come under severe pressure to withdraw the troops.”

With the media providing such poor, power-friendly coverage, how is the general public supposed to gain an accurate understanding of the world? How can politicians make good decisions when it comes to future votes on war and peace? And what chance does the public have of understanding why many people in the Middle East and beyond have an unfavourable view of the UK?

Rather than being the tenacious Woodward and Bernstein-style Fourth Estate of journalists’ fantasies, it’s clear that when it comes to the Middle East the US and British media have, by and large, given their own governments and their militaries a free pass, shamefully helping to hide the bloody reality of Western military action from the American and British people.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

 

Book review. Warmongers: How leaders and their unnecessary wars have wrecked the modern world by R. T. Howard

Book review. Warmongers: How leaders and their unnecessary wars have wrecked the modern world by R. T. Howard
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
August-September 2019

A writer specialising in intelligence and ‘defence’, R. T. Howard’s latest book looks at “individuals who were responsible for starting, conducting or extending an unnecessary war or show of force.”

Echoing the broad tenants of ‘Just War’ theory, four examples of what constitutes an “unnecessary war” are provided: the decision to pursue military force rather than diplomacy or negotiations; the use of excessive force; “war undertaken for no obvious reason”; and futile wars.

Beginning with the American revolutionaries in 1774 and ending with King Salman of Saudi Arabia’s destruction of Yemen from 2015, he sets out a series of concise and readable indictments of warmongers.

Occasionally information of interest to anti-war activists is highlighted. For example, he quotes US air force general Curtis LeMay’s estimate that US forces killed 20 percent of the North Korean population during the Korean War, while UK Defence Minister Lord Gilbert notes “I think the terms put to [Yugoslav president Slobodan] Milosevic at Rambouillet [in 1999 before NATO’s war in Kosovo] were absolutely intolerable…  (which) was quite deliberate.”

The book is also a useful reminder that leaders throughout history have repeatedly deceived the public in their pursuit of war – UK Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s duplicitous 1956 invasion of Egypt and US President Richard Nixon’s secret mass bombing of Cambodia and Laos are both included. However, it is far from an anti-war treatise, with Howard concluding “there are occasions when war should and must be used”. Somewhat strangely, he often provides his own advice on how a leader’s aims could have been achieved without resorting to full scale war– such as suggesting US President Ronald Reagan could have engendered a coup in Panama in 1989 or that North Korean leader Kim Il-sung would have been best to “destabilise” the South Korea government in the 1950s rather than military aggression.

Very lightly referenced with largely secondary sources, his thesis is seriously weakened by a frustrating focus on the foibles of individual leaders, rather than wider political, economic and social forces, including grassroots movements. Eden’s and Napoleon’s warmongering is partly explained away by ill-health, while US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright bullishness on Kosovo is put down to “traits” originating “in her traumatic childhood.”

I would recommend anyone looking to understand international relations, especially the roles of the US and UK, ignore Howard’s book and read the sharper, evidence-based analysis of British historian Mark Curtis and US dissident Noam Chomsky.

Warmongers: How leaders and their unnecessary wars have wrecked the modern world is published by Amberley Publishing, priced £20.

Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?

Does Britain have any influence on US foreign policy?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
24 July 2019

Replying to a May 2019 tweet from Momentum which criticised ex-Labour Party spin doctor Alastair Campbell for his leading role in the illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq, James Bloodworth countered “the war was led by the Americans and would’ve happened anyway” – i.e. without UK involvement.

Bloodworth, the former editor of Left Foot Forward website, likes to position himself on the left. He has certainly done important work highlighting the dark reality of low-wage Britain in his 2018 book Hired, but when it comes to foreign policy he is often a cheerleader for Western military interventions.

In 2013 Bloodworth proposed military action by the West in Pakistan and Afghanistan in support of female education (he has since deleted the tweets where he stated this, though I wrote an article about it at the time). A year later Bloodworth called for the intensification of the US-UK military campaign against ISIS in Iraq.

Back to his May 2019 tweet: that the UK doesn’t have much influence over US foreign policy is a common belief (conversely, there is a broad understanding the US dominates and defacto directs UK foreign policy). However, it’s worth taking time to seriously consider the relationship because if the UK does have some level of influence on US foreign policy then a number of important opportunities and questions arise.

In his 2003 book Regime Unchanged: Why The War On Iraq Changed Nothing, Milan Rai argues Tony Blair was “politically indispensable” to the US drive to war on Iraq. He quotes Republican Senator Chuck Hagel from 2002 (Hagel went on to serve as Defense Secretary under President Obama): “I don’t think it is in the best interests of this country… or any of our allies for us to act unilaterally.” Polls provided more evidence of the importance of UK support, with an August 2002 survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and German Marshall Fund finding only 20 percent of Americans supported a unilateral invasion of Iraq. Echoing this, a January 2003 survey by Princeton Survey Research Associates found 83 percent of Americans supported going to war if the United Nations backed the action and it was carried out by a multinational coalition, but without UN approval and allies this figured dropped to a third of the American public.

“Did we need the British troops to be there?” Andrew Card, President Bush’s Chief of Staff in 2003, rhetorically asked journalist Andrew Rawnsley in this 2010 book End of the Party. ”We needed them in the context of the world, but we didn’t necessarily need them in the context of the military action.”

Bloodworth’s dismissal of British influence on the US also ignores influence which may not have stopped the US war against Iraq but did impact the timetable for the invasion and how the war was eventually fought.

For example, it is likely the US and UK’s failed attempt to get United Nations authorisation for the war, a drawn out process which was likely a response to opposition in the UK and around the globe, delayed the invasion. This influence was illustrated by a 17 February 2003 Guardian report, which noted though “ministers and officials insisted the [15 February 2003] protests… would not delay military preparations for the war… a joint US-UK resolution authorising war… has been put on hold while Washington and London rethink their tactics.”

Indeed, Turkish-US relations at the time suggests less powerful nations can have big impacts on US foreign policy – as shown in the 2012 book Public Opinion and International Intervention: Lessons From the Iraq War. The US expected to stage the northern part of the invasion from Turkey, offering $6 billion in grants and $20 billion in loans, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Turkish government had decided to cooperate with the US. However, the US and Turkish governments had failed to factor in the Turkish public, which polls showed was massively opposed to the war. With the Turkish constitution requiring parliamentary support for foreign troops to be deployed on Turkish soil, this public opinion was translated into a 1 March 2003 parliamentary vote against US troops being stationed in Turkey for the war. Blocked by Turkish democracy, the US had to change its plans at the last minute, with all its ground forces now entering Iraq from Kuwait in the south.

Beyond these constraining influences, the most compelling evidence of decisive UK influence on US foreign policy in recent years was the proposed military action on Syria in 2013.

Following claims that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Ghouta on 21 August 2013, the US moved to conduct punishment airstrikes on Syrian government forces.

By 25 August the US Navy had five destroyers in position in the eastern Mediterranean ready for the attack, according to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal report. In December 2013 the Guardian noted that Obama had let Cameron know that the US might take military action between 30 August and 1 September.

The UK government supported the US plans but, unexpectedly, on 29 August the House of Commons refused to support a government motion endorsing the planned attack. “The spectre of the 2003 Iraq war hung over the commons”, the Guardian reported. Prime Minister David Cameron was immediately forced to concede that “the government will act accordingly” – i.e. the UK would not take part in the airstrikes.

And here is the crucial point: this momentous vote – the first time a British government had lost a vote on military action since Lord North in 1782 apparently – had a huge impact on the Obama Administration.

The next day US warships were “expecting launch orders from the president at between 3 pm and 4 pm”, with the Pentagon conducting a practice press conference about the airstrikes, noted the Wall Street Journal.

However, “the lack of a British blessing removed another layer of legitimacy” for the Obama Administration, the New York Times noted. After speaking with advisors Obama decided to seek congressional approval for the airstrikes, telling aides “he had several reasons… including a sense of isolation after the terrible setback in the British Parliament.” With opposition building in Congress, the attack was cancelled in favour of a joint US-Russian plan to make sure the Syrian government gave up its chemical weapon stockpiles.

John Kerry, US Secretary of State at the time, confirmed this narrative at his farewell press conference in January 2017. “The president had already decided to use force”, he noted, but “the president decided that he needed to go to Congress because of what had happened in Great Britain and because he needed the approval.”

Of course, contrary to Bloodworth’s certainty, we will never know for sure whether or not the US would have invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003 without British support. Certainly if British support had been withdrawn days or weeks before the invasion date – Blair’s position was far more precarious than most people understood at the time – it seems likely the US’s momentum for war would have been too great to stop. But what if the UK had pulled out of the invasion plans in summer 2002? Or when Blair met Bush at Crawford in April 2002?

Bloodworth’s dismissal is ultimately a disempowering analysis. In contrast, the historical record shows, especially with regard to Syria in 2013, that the UK has had a significant influence on US policy. Moreover, it is also clear British public opinion and anti-war activism can, in the right circumstances, decisively impact not just UK foreign policy, but US foreign policy too.

It’s a hopeful and empowering lesson we would do well to remember the next time the drums of war start beating again.

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

 

Documentary review: Combat Obscura directed by Miles Lagoze

Documentary review: Combat Obscura directed by Miles Lagoze
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
29 April 2019

IN 2011, Miles Lagoze deployed to the Sangin-Kajacki area of Afghanistan as a combat cameraman to shoot and edit videos for the US Marine Corps.

Those videos, shot in northern Helmand province, were “a PR tool for the military,” the 29-year old veteran told The Intercept website. With Washington keen to publicise the Afghan army taking over from US forces in the fight against the Taliban-led insurgency, his job was to document marines working with the Afghan army, “giving candy to kids — hearts-and-minds type of stuff.“

The big three no-nos were “no cursing, no shots of guys smoking cigarettes and they have to be in full gear. And then no casualties. That was a big one, not too much bloodshed.”

Lagoze did all this for the US military – and then kept filming. Combat Obscura is made up of the footage the US military didn’t want you to see.

Taking a grunt’s-eye view of the war, there are long periods of boredom interrupted by short bursts of intense, adrenaline-fuelled combat. Soldiers smoke marijuana, disrespect the local population and kill an unarmed shopkeeper.

At one point a marine aggressively waves a gun at a group of children demanding “Where’s the fucking Taliban?”

With no narration or explanation, Combat Obscura is a confusing, impressionistic take on the ongoing military occupation of Afghanistan. Yet it it highlights some uncomfortable truths for the US and British political and military establishments, with the media in tow, who initiated the war and have backed it since 2001, an incredible 18 years ago.

In one of the film’s longest scenes, a group of marines search a village for a “high-value target.” Local men are detained, photographed and fingerprinted and one US soldier is filmed shortly after taking a shit in the garden of a house.

With no arrests made, the marines hold a debrief meeting. “Are they pissed off at us?” asks one soldier. “I would be pissed,” answers his superior.

This understanding that the very presence and actions of the foreign occupying forces is likely energising the armed insurgency is not confined to US troops.

As British lieutenant Jimmy Clark explained about an operation to secure a road in northern Helmand in the 2012 BBC3 series Our War, “one of the problems, especially with IEDs (improvised explosive devices) on the route 611, is that the insurgents aren’t trying to blow up the ANCOP (Afghan National Civil Order Police), or even the civilians, they are just trying to blow up us.

“So we are actually in a position where we are protecting a route which only needs protecting because we use it.”

Having experienced the war first-hand, Lagoze himself is highly critical of the US intervention. “While we were there, we created an almost uninhabitable environment for the Afghan civilians,” he told The Intercept.

“Before we were there, they were oppressed by the Taliban. While we were there, they were caught in the middle between two oppressive forces. And how many times did we bomb their houses? How many times did we mistakenly kill innocent people?”

Combat Obscura is available for viewing online, download details: combatobscura.oscilloscope.net.

NATO’s 2011 war on Libya: myth and reality

NATO’s 2011 war on Libya: myth and reality
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
27 April 2019

Last month retired British major-general Rob Weighill gave a public lecture at the London School of Economics titled The Cauldron: NATO’s 2011 Operation to Protect Civilians in Libya – based on his new co-authored book of the same title published by Hurst.

Triggered by the Libyan government’s crackdown on anti-government rebels, Operation Unified Protector ran from March 2011 to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. The official NATO war aim was the protection of civilians, set out in United Nations Resolution 1973.

As the person who led the planning and directed operations during the Libya intervention from NATO’s Joint Force Command, Weighill provided an insider account of NATO’s air campaign, which he considers a success. However, during the lecture Weighill made a series of misleading statements about the conflict which deserve to be challenged.

Myth: Weighill said “We [NATO] had no direct comms [communications] with the rebels. We were unable to talk to the anti-Gaddafi rebels.”

Reality: Special Forces from NATO member nations, including France and the UK, were deployed in Libya to support the rebels. “By every account, the presence of foreign ground advisors working with Libyan opposition forces had a transformative effect on [NATO] airpower”, Dr Frederic Wehrey wrote in Foreign Policy in 2013, after conducting two dozen interviews with anti-Qaddafi commanders. “Libyan interlocutors described how, in the operations rooms of Misrata, Zintan, and Benghazi, these advisors built trust between Western forces and the opposition and — most importantly — coordinated [NATO] airstrikes.”

According to Wehrey “Opposition forces and their sympathizers across the country formed a complex network of spotters, informants, forward observers, and battle damage assessors… The problem that NATO faced, therefore, was not a shortage of targeting information, but a flood of it.” In May 2011 a “senior European diplomat” confirmed to the Guardian that NATO’s bombing campaign was “relying strongly on information supplied by rebel leaders”.

Why does Weighill deny there was any communication between NATO and rebel forces? With the rebels fighting to overthrow the Libyan government committing “serious violations, including war crimes and breaches of international human rights law”, according to a 2012 United Nations Human Rights Council report, admitting support would likely have significant legal implications. For example, Wehrey notes “there was an acute awareness” among rebels “that NATO was only engaging weapons that were firing at civilians. In response, several opposition commanders acknowledged trying to provoke Qaddafi’s artillery into firing in the direction of civilians so that NATO would strike.”

Myth: Weighill referred to NATO’s “maritime embargo… the prevention of the movement of weapons and ammunition et al.”

Reality: Writing in Foreign Policy in 2016, Micah Zenko, a Senior Fellow with Chatham House, noted United Nations Resolution 1970 “was supposed to prohibit arms transfers to either side of the war in Libya”. NATO officials repeatedly claimed their air and sea blockade was successful, with NATO’s Spokesperson stating on 7 July 2011 “the arms embargo is effective.”

In reality, the US – the dominant military power in NATO – “gave its blessing to arms shipments to Libyan rebels from Qatar” and the UAE in spring 2011, according to a 2012 New York Times report. “NATO air and sea forces around Libya had to be alerted not to interdict the cargo planes and freighters transporting the arms to Libya from Qatar and the emirates”, according to US officials.

Moreover, an October 2011 Guardian report noted Qatar had deployed “hundreds of troops” to Libya in support of the rebel forces. “We acted as the link between the rebel and NATO forces”, Qatar’s Chief-of-Staff told AFP news agency.

In addition to NATO contravening the very UN resolution [1970] they claimed to be upholding, it is important to note supplying arms to rebel forces is itself illegal, according to Olivier Corten and Vaios Koutroulis, two scholars in international law, in a 2013 article in the Journal of Conflict & Security Law.

Myth: Weighill referred to “the fact that every single mission that was undertaken by NATO air and maritime forces was done so with the key effect to protect civilians.”

Reality: In 2016 the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee concluded “If the primary object of the coalition intervention was the urgent need to protect civilians in Benghazi, then this objective was achieved in less than 24 hours.” Contrary to Weighill’s claim, Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Director of Policy Planning at the US State Department, explained to the New York Times in 2016 that “we did not try to protect civilians on Qaddafi’s side.” However, even Slaughter’s admission downplays the extent of NATO’s anti-civilian actions in Libya: the evidence suggests NATO didn’t just “not try to protect civilians” supporting Gaddafi, as Slaughter asserts, but provided air cover for rebel forces as they killed – and committed war crimes against – civilians.

The rebels “used inherently indiscriminate weapons in their military offensives against cities perceived as loyalist”, noted a 2012 UN Human Rights Council report. Nowhere more so than in Sirte, which was pulverised by rebel ground forces supported by NATO airstrikes in September-October 2011. “The Commission found that almost every building exhibited damage”, the UN Human Rights Council found. The Washington Post confirmed Sirte was “largely destroyed” in the fighting, with “the revolutionaries… firing purloined antiaircraft guns and artillery at apartment buildings where pro-Gaddafi snipers have holed up, causing heavy damage.”

Myth: “We had a policy in the [NATO] Joint Task Force that if anybody mentioned regime change they were instantly expelled from the headquarters”, Weighill said. “NATO’s view… was not about regime change.”

Reality: Weighill himself shoots holes in his own account by noting earlier in his lecture that “Number 10 [the UK], the White House [the US] and Versailles [France] were constantly referring to regime change.” So apparently the three dominant military powers in NATO wanted regime change but this wasn’t translated into NATO policy, according to Weighill. Confused? Others observers of the conflict are more honest. After hearing testimony from scholars and government officials and senior military figures, including former Chief of the Defence Staff Lord David Richards, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee confirmed “a limited intervention to protect civilians drifted into a policy of regime change by military means.”

The Royal United Services Institute, an establishment think-tank very close to the UK military, concurs, referring in a 2012 report to how “the initial security council resolution was contorted out of all recognition from the protection of civilians to, in effect, outright regime change”. Zenko simply states “In truth, the Libyan intervention was about regime change from the very start.”

Why is Weighill so explicit in his rejection of regime change? The answer, once again, likely concerns international law, which explicitly prohibits regime change, as Attorney General Lord Goldsmith warned Tony Blair in 2003.

Discovering the truth about NATO’s intervention

The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded “The result” of NATO’s intervention “was political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL in North Africa.” This indictment, combined with the serious legal questions raised by Weighill’s lecture, suggests British historian Mark Curtis was right to call for a public inquiry into the Libya intervention last year.

The Cauldron: NATO’s Campaign in Libya by Rob Weighill and Florence Gaub is published by Hurst, priced £40.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Praising Alistair Burt and forgetting the bloodbath in Yemen

Praising Alistair Burt and forgetting the bloodbath in Yemen
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
8 April 2019

“I’ve never encountered any group more driven by group-think and rank-closing cohesion than British journalists”, US writer Glenn Greenwald tweeted in September 2015.

In addition to the media, the recent response to Alistair Burt MP resigning from his position as Minister of State for the Middle East over the government’s handling of Brexit shows this herd-like behaviour also infects sections of civil society and apparently progressive politicians.

“Many disagree with UK policy in the Middle East but he has a reputation for even handedness”, tweeted the Guardian’s Diplomatic Editor Patrick Wintour. “Big blow to FCO [Foreign & Commonwealth Office].” Laura Kuenssberg, the BBC’s Political Editor echoed these thoughts, noting Burt was a “well respected foreign office minister.” Minutes later Scottish National Party MP Alison Thewliss tweeted her own tribute: “Alistair Burt attended pretty well every debate on Yemen and helped as much as he could.” Tom Copley, Labour Party London Assembly member chipped in: “I’ve heard nothing but good things about Alistair Burt.” A Communications staffer in the Labour Party, Tom Hinchcliffe, tweeted that though he disagreed with their politics “ministers like Alistair Burt are genuinely decent people. They believe what they say and they’re in it for the right reasons.”

“Sad to hear that @AlistairBurtUK has resigned… a loss to Middle East diplomacy”, tweeted James Denselow, the Head of Conflict Team at Save The Children UK.

As Morning Star readers will know, Burt, as the Middle East Minister from 2017-2019, has played a central and very public role in British policy on Yemen, a nation engulfed in war after the Saudi-led coalition started bombing the country in March 2015 in support of deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Two years later, in March 2017, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs announced Yemen was “the largest humanitarian crisis in the world”.

Out of a population of 29.3 million, nearly 17.8 million people were food insecure and 8.4 million were on the brink of famine, according to a September 2018 report by the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR): “Since April 2017, a cholera epidemic has swept through Yemen at an unprecedented scale.”

The crisis is fundamentally man-made, with the Saudi-led coalition implementing a brutal blockade of Yemen, stopping vital goods entering the country. “These delays are killing children”, Grant Pritchard, interim country director for Save the Children in Yemen, said in March 2017. “Our teams are dealing with outbreaks of cholera, and children suffering from diarrhoea, measles, malaria and malnutrition. With the right medicines these are all completely treatable – but the Saudi-led coalition is stopping them getting in. They are turning aid and commercial supplies into weapons of war.”

Indeed, in November 2018 Save the Children estimated approximately 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger or disease in Yemen since March 2015.

According to the OHCHR report the Saudi-led coalition airstrikes “have been and continue to be the leading direct cause of civilian deaths and destruction of civilian infrastructure in the conflict.” This fits with the 2016 findings of the Yemen Data Project – that one third of Saudi-led air raids had hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. By October 2018 the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project was estimating 56,000 people had been killed between January 2016 and October 2018.

What has been the UK’s role in this mass slaughter?

“We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said in April 2015. “Political support, of course, logistical and technical support.”

Unusually in foreign affairs, the UK government has kept its word. Asked “What do you think the UK can do more in the realm of helping the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen?”, Burt told Majella magazine in 2018 “At the moment it’s difficult to see what more we can do.”

In terms of armaments, in February the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations noted the UK has licensed £4.7 billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia since March 2015. Britain’s seemingly bottomless support for the absolute monarchy even went as far as the UK Foreign Secretary recently lobbying Germany to resume their arms sales to the Kingdom following a ban after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Speaking to the House of Lords Select Committee Burt said he wanted to make it “very clear” that the UK was “not a party to the military conflict as part of the coalition.” However, last month The Mail on Sunday revealed British Special Forces had been wounded in combat fighting against Houthi rebels. The report notes “The SBS [Special Boat Service] mentoring teams inside Yemen include… Forward Air Controllers (FACs), whose job is to request air support from the Saudis.”

Britain’s rapacious role in Yemen is quite simply “the worst thing that the British government is doing today”, Dr David Wearing, a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, argued in a 2017 Novara Media video. “Make no mistake: the British role here is not trivial. If the considerable assistance that our government is providing to the Saudis was to be removed it would seriously impede the Saudi war effort.”

Burt, then, as the UK’s Minister of State for the Middle East, was up to his neck in the blood of tens of thousands of Yemeni men, women and children. Not according to Laura Kuenssberg though, who called him a “well respected foreign office minister”, or Save The Children’s James Denselow, who shockingly called Burt’s resignation “a loss to Middle East diplomacy.” Never has Mark Curtis’s concept of “Unpeople” been so apt: “the modern equivalent of the ‘savages’ of colonial days, who could be mown down by British guns in virtual secrecy, or else in circumstances where the perpetrators were hailed as the upholders of civilisation.”

As the American historian Howard Zinn once noted “The truth is so often the reverse of what has been told us by our culture that we cannot turn our heads far enough around to see it.”

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

Where is the outrage over the Raqqa bloodbath?

Where is the outrage over the Raqqa bloodbath?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 February 2019

I’m guessing very few readers of the Morning Star read The Times. This is understandable but it’s important to remember even Tory-supporting newspapers often publish useful information.

For example, Morning Star readers will have found much of interest in Anthony Loyd’s dispatch from Raqqa in Syria subtitled “Civilians Bore the Brunt of Allied Bombing,” published in The Times just before Christmas.

The report concerned the US-led military operation undertaken between June and October 2017 which drove the Islamic State (IS) from the northern Syrian city, which it had taken control of in early 2014.

The US-led coalition carried out airstrikes and artillery barrages in support of Syrian Democratic Forces on the ground as part of what US defence secretary James Mattis stated was a larger war of “annihilation.”

Speaking to Reuters at the beginning of the incursion, United Nations (UN) humanitarian spokesman Jens Laerke said the UN estimated 160,000 people remained in the city.

The First Response Team Loyd spoke to in Raqqa said they had recovered 3,280 corpses since January 2018, including the bodies of 604 children.

“In some instances it can be difficult to tell the exact manner of death,” explained first responder Riyad al-Omeri, who is responsible for the organisation’s records. “But let’s be clear about this. Most of the dead are civilians killed in airstrikes.”

“Islamic State was cruel to all but the coalition used airstrikes against us as if we were animals,” Hannan Mukhalf, who lost 11 members of her family in a coalition airstrike, told Loyd.

“I challenge anyone to find a more precise air campaign in the history of warfare,” coalition commander Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend stated at the time of the offensive.

A plethora of sources corroborate Omeri’s and Mukhalf’s testimonies rather than Townsend’s fantastical claim.

“The intensification of airstrikes … has resulted not only in staggering loss of civilian life, but has also led to 160,000 civilians fleeing their homes and becoming internally displaced,” Paulo Pinheiro, chair of the UN independent international commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, noted early on in the assault.

In addition, the Guardian reported on footage showing the coalition firing white phosphorus into built-up areas, while Amnesty International has noted the so-called battle for Raqqa destroyed 80 per cent of the city.

According to independent monitoring group Airwars, “Most damage to the city — described in January 2018 by USAid chief Mark Green as devastation ‘almost beyond description’ — was the result of US air and artillery strikes.”

In February 2018 the Marine Corps Times provided more detail about the offensive, reporting that “a small marine artillery battalion,” using M777 howitzers, fired 35,000 rounds in Raqqa — “more rounds than any artillery battalion since Vietnam.”

The newspaper helpfully put these numbers in context: during the whole of the 2003 invasion of Iraq just over 34,000 artillery rounds were fired by all US forces.

Amnesty International also provided helpful context in its June 2018 investigation into the attack on Raqqa: “Given that standard artillery shells fired from an M777 howitzer have an average margin of error of over 100m, launching so many of these shells into a city where civilians were trapped in every neighbourhood posed an unacceptable risk to civilians.”

Based on fieldwork in Raqqa, including visits to 42 sites of air strikes, artillery and mortar strikes, Amnesty concluded the coalition strikes detailed in their report “appear either disproportionate or indiscriminate or both and as such unlawful and potential war crimes.”

Responding in part to the brilliant investigative work done by Airwars and Amnesty, in July 2018 the US military conceded its aerial bombardment of Raqqa “unintentionally killed” 77 civilians, in addition to 23 civilian deaths they had already admitted to.

Incredibly, the British military maintains they are not aware of any civilian deaths caused by the 275 airstrikes Loyd reports Britain carried out in Raqqa. “We conduct detailed assessments after every strike and we have not seen any evidence to suggest there were civilian casualties as a result of RAF strikes in Raqqa,” a Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson told me.

“Through our rigorous targeting processes we will continue to seek to minimise the risk of civilian casualties, but that risk can never be removed entirely, particularly given the ruthless and inhumane behaviour of our adversary, including the deliberate use of human shields.”

In October, Amnesty described the MoD’s continued denial of civilian casualties as “a clear statistical improbability.”

In contrast to the public statement from the US and Britain, as of March 2018 Airwars had tracked “1,400 likely coalition-inflicted deaths” during the four-month assault.

“The intent may have been different … but through modelling the impacts, we have determined that there was not a huge difference in terms of civilian harm between the coalition in Raqqa and Russia in East Ghouta and Aleppo,” Airwars director Chris Woods told Loyd.

“In the end there does not always seem to be so much difference in harm caused by dumb weaponry versus smart weaponry when you are intensely bombing an area with a high civilian concentration,” he added.

As predicted by sharp media analysts like Media Lens and Dr Florian Zollmann, the mainstream media’s coverage of US and British actions in Raqqa has been woeful.

“Despite the horrors experienced by civilians during recent fighting, press reports from Raqqa have been filed far less regularly than its status as the former ‘Isis capital’ might have suggested,” Airwars noted in March 2018.

The de facto silence surrounding the West’s attack on Raqqa mirrors how the media has downplayed the West’s involvement in Syria since 2011.

The “Western democracies” have been “hovering passively on the sidelines in Syria,” was Simon Tisdall’s expert take in the Observer in February 2018.

In reality, “Washington did provide aid on a large scale to Syrian armed opposition,” Steven Simon, the senior director for Middle Eastern and north Africa affairs on the US national security council during the Obama administration, wrote in the New York Times in January.

Robert Malley, who served in the Obama administration as the White House co-ordinator on the Middle East, north Africa, and Gulf region, echoed Simon’s analysis on The Real News Network in August 2018: “We became part of the regime change — by definition, even if we denied it — once we were supplying the armed opposition which had only one goal … which was to topple the regime.”

The deaths of four Americans — two US soldiers, a civilian Department of Defence official and private contractor — last month in the northern Syrian town of Manbij confirms the US is very much involved in the Syrian war.

Indeed, before President Donald Trump’s recent withdrawal announcement, the US military had 2,000 troops stationed (illegally) in Syria, according to a November 2018 New Yorker article: “The United States has built a dozen or more bases from Manbij to al-Hasakah, including four airfields, and American-backed forces now control all of Syria east of the Euphrates, an area about the size of Croatia.”

As ever, where the US goes, Britain blindly follows. In March 2018, a British soldier from the Parachute Regiment was killed by an improvised explosive device while embedded with US forces in Manbij and last month two British Special Forces soldiers were seriously injured in an IS missile attack in eastern Syria, according to the Guardian.

Where is the media scrutiny into British forces fighting on the ground in Syria? Where are all the investigative journalists focusing on Britain’s laughable claims about civilian deaths? And where are the outraged editorials and comment pieces denouncing Britain’s involvement in the slaughter in Raqqa?

Fallujah in 2004, Sirte in 2011 and Mosul in 2016-17: is Raqqa destined to become another forgotten US-British bloodbath in the Middle East?

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?

What’s British imperialism up to in Oman?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
28 January 2019

In his new book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, Dr David Wearing observes: “British power has been an important factor (among others) in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule” in the Arabian Gulf.

With the Morning Star’s Phil Miller recently writing a couple of exposes of the UK’s military involvement in Oman it is worth taking time to explore the British government’s wider relationship with the so-called “sleepy sultanate” in more detail.

Since signing an “assistance” treaty with Oman in 1798 — its first in the region — Britain has played the role of imperial overseer to the country. British historian Mark Curtis notes the “extremely repressive” regime of Sultan Said bin Taimur from 1932-70 “was in effect run by the British.”

Britons served as commanders of the armed forces, ministers for financial affairs, foreign affairs and petroleum affairs, as well as the director of intelligence, Curtis notes in his 2003 book Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in the World.

However, with the country in the midst of civil war, by 1970 the Sultan had come to be seen as an unreliable and weak leader by the British, who helped to overthrow him in a palace coup.

For his troubles he was settled in the Dorchester Hotel back in London, where he died two years later. His own son, the modernising Qaboos, was installed in his place, and 49 years later he still rules Oman, making him the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world.

As this longevity suggests, Oman is an absolute monarchy, in which “nearly all power remains with the monarch,” according to University of Exeter’s Dr Marc Valeri, an expert on Oman.

Qaboos “concurrently holds the positions of prime minister, commander in chief of the armed forces, chairman of the central bank, and minister of defence, foreign affairs, and finance,” Valeri notes in a 2015 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report.

Political parties are banned and press freedom is severely curtailed.

With Qaboos presenting Oman as an oasis of stability in a volatile region, one intellectual provided important context when interviewed by Valeri in 2012: “Omanis were not silent by choice … rather they were silenced by the regime. The Omani population was very quiet because of repression and fear: ‘Don’t talk about politics: you will be taken behind the sun’!”

As this quote intimates, the relationship between ruler and ruled has started to shift in recent years, with more Omanis publicly criticising their government.

In 2010 an online petition was submitted to Qaboos pushing for “widespread reforms, such as a new constitution that would lead to a parliamentary monarchy,” Valeri writes.

Inspired by the Arab Spring protests rocking the rest of the Arab world, in early 2011 (largely peaceful) demonstrations occurred in several cities in Oman.

Though the protesters’ key demands centred on improved job opportunities, increased wages and an end to rampant corruption, there were also calls for political reform, including giving more power to the elected Consultative Council, increased independence for the judiciary and a free and open media.

Smaller in size than in many other Arab nations, the demonstrations in Oman nevertheless forced significant, though limited, concessions from the regime, such as an increase in the minimum wage, the creation of 50,000 jobs, the firing of several ministers and a small increase in the powers of the Consultative Council.

However, along with the carrot, Qaboos also made good use of the stick, with Valeri noting: “Several hundred protesters, journalists, and human rights activists were arrested all over the country.”

After 2011 the repression increased, Valeri noted in 2015. “Oman’s overly broad laws restrict the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association,” Human Rights Watch summarises on its website today.

“The authorities target peaceful activists, pro-reform bloggers, and government critics using short-term arrests and detentions and other forms of harassment.”

The British government, so keen to highlight human rights abuses carried out by governments in “enemy” states such as Libya and Syria, has, as far as I can tell, been completely silent about the protests and government crackdown in Oman.

How do I know? After a fruitless search of its website, I asked the Foreign Office and Commonwealth (FCO) press office to confirm whether the British government has made any public statements since 2010 about human rights in Oman.

It has been unable to point to any such statement, claiming there are too many statements to search through to know.

This silence is unsurprising, when one considers Britain’s deep geostrategic and economic interests in maintaining the status quo in Oman: along with Iran, Oman is situated beside “the world’s most important chokepoint for oil, the Strait of Hormuz, which is the conduit for about 40 per cent of the crude [oil] traded internationally,” Bloomberg recently reported.

Britain has recently announced the opening of two new military bases in Oman — the Duqm Port complex and a “joint training base,” the latter announced by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson in November.

With the latter able to accommodate submarines and Britain’s new aircraft carriers, the bases are part of a broader military engagement with the Gulf, allowing Britain to more effectively project military power in the resource-rich region.

For example, during the 2001 US and British-led invasion of Afghanistan, Oman “provided crucial logistics and base facilities for British forces,” Curtis explains.

We have the US whistleblower Edward Snowden to thank for revealing another reason for Britain’s enduring interest in Oman — files he leaked in 2013 show Britain has a secret network of three spy bases in Oman which tap into the undersea fibreoptic cables passing through the Strait of Hormuz.

These intelligence facilities “intercept and process vast quantities of emails, telephone calls and web traffic,” information which is “then shared with the National Security Agency in the United States,” Curtis explained in a 2016 article for the Huffington Post.

There is concern amongst the Omani population about their government’s close relationship to Britain and the US.

Valeri refers to “online writers and protesters who openly criticised the ruler’s practices” such as “his proximity to British and US interests” being “quickly arrested and condemned to jail” after the 2011 protests.

Indeed, Britain is directly involved in the repression of domestic opposition in Oman.

“British police officers have trained members of Oman’s Special Forces, police and military in ‘public order’ tactics since 2014 as part of a controversial $1.2m security and justice project,” the Middle East Eye reported in 2017.

It turns out the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been instructing the Omani authorities in “how to deal with strikes and stifle protests under a Foreign Office-funded project.”

Having fled Oman in 2013 after being repeatedly arrested, Omani human rights campaigner Khalfan al-Badwawi told the Middle East Eye “Britain’s military relationship with Oman” is “a major obstacle to human rights campaigners in Oman because of the military and intelligence support from London that props up the Sultan’s dictatorship.”

Nabhan Alhanshi, who fled Oman in 2012 and is now the director of an organisation looking at human rights in his home country, concurs.

“We in the Omani Centre for Human Rights believe that the British negligence of the human rights situations in Oman encourages the Omani government to commit more violations,” he told me.

With the mainstream media unwilling to report on this issue, the left in Britain has a key role to play in highlighting Britain’s forgotten friendship with the autocracy in Oman.

Like the anti-war movement did in Iraq and Afghanistan, progressives need to make concrete links of with pro-democracy activists and organisations in Oman and the rest of the Gulf monarchies.

With the British government’s support for Qaboos’s dictatorial rule as strong as ever, this population-to-population solidarity is one way Britons can help to build the more democratic, free and equal Oman that many Omanis have been working towards for so long.

Follow Ian Sinclair on Twitter at @IanJSinclair.