Tag Archives: US foreign policy

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne

Book review: To Kill The President by Sam Bourne
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
31 August 2017

Writing under the pseudonym Sam Bourne, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland’s new book is a timely Washington D.C.-based political thriller.

Presumably finished soon after Donald Trump won the presidency in November last year, To Kill The President begins with an unnamed, newly elected and manically unstable Commander in Chief stopped at the last minute from ordering an unprovoked nuclear strike on North Korea – a storyline that got Freedland plenty of media exposure during the recent US-North Korean nuclear standoff.

Operating in the shadows is the president’s calculating, deeply unpleasant chief strategist Crawford ‘Mac’ McNamara, clearly based on the recently departed Steve Bannon.

Fighting the good liberal fight is Maggie Costello, a former UN aid worker and peace negotiator now working in the White House’s Counsel Office. Ordered to investigate the mysterious death of the President’s personal doctor, she uncovers a plot to assassinate POTUS, grappling with the personal, moral and political repercussions of her discovery. Should she try to stop the murder of the democratically elected head of state, or would the US and the world be a better place if the ignorant and dangerous demagogue was six feet under? This conundrum isn’t as interesting as Freedland thinks it is but nonetheless it’s an entertaining plot device, one that encourages the reader to root for the assassin, in a similar way to Frederick Forsyth’s classic The Day of the Jackal.

The centrality of the assassination plot means the book is inescapably premised on a particularly elite view of history – that the real power resides with Great Men and that significant, long-lasting political change is triggered if they are disposed. Social movements, grassroots activism, broad historical currents – all are ignored.

Talking of politics, as a long-time reader of Freedland’s Guardian articles, I was interested to see if his brand of liberal, establishment-friendly politics would be reflected in his writing, or whether he was a skilled enough author to escape, or atleast think critically about, his increasingly irrelevant worldview (e.g. his article just before the general election about Labour’s fortunes titled ‘No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown’).

Spoiler alert: it’s the former.

Diligently following the press pack, lamentably the book is preoccupied with the supposed dangers of social media, and those liberal bête noires – so-called Fake News and post-truth politics. In contrast Media Lens told the Morning Star last year the “media performance” of the corporate liberal media “is itself largely fake news”, arguing the term is deployed to demonise social media and bolster the corporate media. Indeed, Freedland isn’t averse to some post-truth politics himself. For example, “when violence resumed in Gaza” was how he described/dismissed, on BBC Question Time, Israel’s 2014 one-sided bombardment of Gaza that killed 1,523 Palestinian civilians, including 519 children, according to the United Nations.

The previous occupant of the Oval Office – who Costello reverentially remembers serving under – is represented as a benign, wise, rational man. Laughably, at one point Freedland writes that this Obama-like figure insisted an investigation into a “mid-ranking official” in his own administration had as wide a remit as possible to make sure it uncovered any corruption going on. Again, this power worship shouldn’t be surprising when one considers Freedland’s quasi-religious account of Obama coming on stage in Berlin in July 2008: the then Democratic presidential candidate “almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water”, he breathlessly recorded.

“We will miss him when he’s gone”, he wrote about president No. 44, who had bombed seven nations, killing thousands of men, women and children, during his presidency. Freedland has acted as a defacto unpaid intern in the White House press office for decades. “I had seen a maestro at the height of his powers. Clinton was the Pele of politics, and we might wait half a century to see his like again”, he gushed at the end of Bill Clinton’s time in office in 2000. “I will miss him”.

Perhaps it’s too much to ask from To Kill A President, but the book – and no doubt Freedland – shows no awareness of the relationship between Obama’s neoliberal, status quo-saving politics and the rise of Trump. Or the key role played by liberal commentators such as Freedland in shielding the Wall Street-funded Obama from serious criticism.

Though it doesn’t match the excitement levels or political conspiracy of the best in the genre – think the unthreatening and simplistic politics of TV show Designated Survivor rather than the radicalism of Costa Gavras’s Z or the lightening pace of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels – Freedland has written an enjoyable page-turner. Just don’t read it to understand US politics, the Trump presidency or how real progressive change might be made in America.

To Kill The President is published by HarperCollins, priced £7.99.

 

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Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East

Using the Establishment to Skewer the Establishment: UK Foreign Policy in the Middle East
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 July 2017

In May 2017 the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations published a report titled The Middle East: Time for New Realism. The group who compiled the report include ex-foreign policy advisers to William Hague and Gordon Brown, former Labour Defence Secretary Lord Reid and Lord Hannay, the UK Ambassador to the United Nations from 1990-95.

Some people on the left are dismissive of establishment sources. This is a shame because they can be very useful, so are worth reading carefully if one has the time. For example, the 116-page report contains original testimony from high level policymakers, giving a rare insight into elite thinking. US dissident Noam Chomsky has a similar view of the business press, arguing “it is useful to read what the ruling class tells its people… they tend to be more honest, because they are talking to people they don’t have to worry about, and to people who need to know the truth so that they can go out and make decisions”. Select committees also attract some of the best experts on the topic under consideration. As a consequence, reports such as this are considered trustworthy and credible by many, especially the establishment itself, so are useful to cite to back up one’s argument in any debate.

The report starts by noting “The UK has critical interests in the region, both economic and security”. With the stability of the oil and gas markets having a direct impact on global economic prosperity, it explains “the interest for the UK in Middle East energy remains in securing stability of global oil supplies through the Gulf and securing its own liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies.” Stewart Williams, Vice-President of the energy consultancy group Wood Mackenzie, explains that over half of the UK’s gas is now imported, of which around a third comes from Qatar.

The region’s energy resources have long been a central geopolitical interest of the West, with the US State Department noting at the end of the Second World War that Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies were “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”

“British commercial interests in the region are sizeable”, the report continues, noting trade in goods and services between the UK and the Middle East amounts to approximately £18.9 billion, with the Gulf states accounting for around £16 billion of this. “Above all, the Middle East dominates the UK defence export market and is the largest regional importer of British defence services and equipment”, the select committee says.

Neil Crompton, Director of Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), notes these security and commercial interests “draw us towards more engagement” with the region.  This euphemistic description is clarified later in the report when Hayder al-Khoei, a Visiting Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, explains the UK “gives almost unconditional support” to its Gulf Arab allies. And we have no bigger Gulf Arab ally than the theocratic monarchy Saudi Arabia, who the UK has been supporting in its bombing of Yemen “in every practical way short of engaging in combat”, according to the UK foreign secretary in 2015. The report notes that in January 2016 a United Nations Panel of Experts on Yemen estimated that 60 percent of civilian deaths and injuries in Yemen were caused by air-launched explosive weapons, with “air strikes targeting civilians and civilian objects, in violation of international humanitarian law”, including refugee camps, weddings, residential areas, medical facilities, schools, mosques, markets and food storage warehouses.

“The UN has warned that Yemen is on the brink of a famine, with children paying the heaviest price”, the report notes. As of 6 July 1,600 Yemenis had died from cholera, according to UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric.

Invited to give evidence to the select committee, the group Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain maintains the UK’s support for the Saudi-led bombing has “likely extended the conflict and deepened UK complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe”. Moreover, the report goes on to note “The conflict in Yemen has jeopardised UK development work in the region”, with the Department for International Development forced to suspend its development programme in the country.

Discussing broader developments since the 2011 uprisings, Dr Christopher Davidson, Reader in Middle East Politics at Durham University, notes that the UK has supported counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt and Bahrain. The UK’s “supposed support of democracy… would be strongly challenged by many people” in the region, he argues. Antoun Issa from the Middle East Institute builds on Davidson’s testimony, explaining that a “large source of anti-Americanism (and anti-UK sentiment as an extension) stems from a region-wide perception that Western powers underwrite the regional autocratic order”.

Turning to the future, the selection committee believe that post-Brexit the UK government will seek “to deepen its security and trade relations with the Gulf states” with “the UK’s dependence on arms exports… likely to increase”. Worryingly, Jane Kinninmont, Deputy Head of Middle East and North Africa at Chatham House think-tank, explains that Gulf nations will see that the “UK needs new friends or renewed relationships with old friends” and consider British policy to be “more malleable and susceptible to influence”.

It gets worse. In a section titled Dilemma of Democracy Promotion the report argues “In the long term, in a more pacific context, the aim would be to actively encourage more democracy; but that is not the situation we find ourselves in. The priority is now to encourage efforts at stabilising the region.” There is that word again – “stability”. In a recently compiled list of Common Terms Used by the Elite to Mislead the Public British historian Mark Curtis argues the actual meaning of “stability” is “repression by Western-backed governments.” The report shows that Curtis is right on the money, when it explains the UK’s support for “the stability offered by hereditary family rulers” in the Gulf means it has “undergirded a system of authoritarianism.”

The dire ramifications of this shameful policy are inadvertently made clear by Neil Crompton from the FCO. The “underlying causes” of the Arab spring, including “the sense of economic disempowerment” among young people “have not really been addressed by any of the governments in the region”, he notes. So, contrary to the mainstream media’s framing of the West being interested in promoting democracy in the Middle East, a careful reading of the House of Lords report highlights a far more uncomfortable reality: that UK’s foreign policy plays a role in stifling popular movements that are trying to throw off the shackles of their authoritarian and unelected rulers.

Book Review: How I Lost by Hillary Clinton

Book Review: How I Lost by Hillary Clinton
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
7 August 2017

Since Trump was elected President of the United States the Democratic Party establishment and Hillary Clinton supporters have blamed everyone – including FBI Director James Comey, the Russian government and backers of Bernie Sanders – except the Democratic candidate herself.

How I Lost puts the spotlight firmly on Clinton, arguing she lost because she is “an economic and political elitist and a foreign policy hawk divorced from the serious concerns of ordinary Americans”.

The book’s wheeze is that Clinton is the author, based on the fact it’s largely based on Clinton’s own words taken from her campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails and Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails – both leaked by Wikileaks last year. However, Clinton’s authorship is a red herring – it is former Wall Street Journal correspondent Joe Lauria who provides the important context and inconvenient facts (for Clinton anyway) to help the reader make sense of all the leaked information. Wikileaks Editor-In-Chief Julian Assange provides the book’s foreword.

The emails paint a picture of Clinton and her team as deeply Machiavellian characters, her “embrace of centrist neoliberalism” completely out of touch with our turbulent political times. Journalists are shown to have an extremely cosy relationship with Clinton’s campaign, while emails are presented showing that Clinton’s entourage and the Democratic Party establishment colluded to crush Sander’s insurgent campaign to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for the presidency. The Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee sent Clinton’s team advanced warning of questions to be asked by the audience in debates between Sanders and Clinton, while the DNC’s Chief Financial Officer suggested to the DNC Communications Manager that Sanders should be challenged about his religious beliefs, which they saw as a potential weakness.

On foreign policy, the emails highlight Clinton as an aggressive military interventionist in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the “shit show” (Barack Obama’s description) that is Libya. Though she publically called for the US setting up no-fly zones in Syria, in a private 2013 speech to Goldman Sachs she suggested caution as it would “kill a lot of Syrians.”

So how can Trump and the Republicans be defeated at the next presidential election? Lauria is clear: the Democrats need to “find a candidate seriously committed to reversing the betrayal of the party’s traditional working-class base and restore the badly eroded New Deal.” Who that should be is unclear, though one thing is undeniable – it can’t be Clinton or someone with her politics.

How I Lost by Hillary Clinton is published by OR Books, priced £14.

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)

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian

Don’t mention Western intervention! Yemen, Somalia and the Guardian
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 March 2017

Earlier this month Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned the world was facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Speaking to the UN Security Council, O’Brien said more than 20 million people in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria were facing starvation and famine.

Following up on this, on 17 March 2017 the Guardian published a report on Yemen, noting that aid agencies have warned the country is “at the point of no return”. UN figures show 17 million people facing severe food insecurity, the Guardian noted, including nearly seven million people deemed to be in a state of emergency. With the article relegated to page 29 of the newspaper, there was just one oblique mention of the US and UK, which the report explained “have influence over the Saudi-led coalition” currently attacking Yemen and blocking aid entering the country.

Here are the basic facts the Guardian chose not to highlight. Since March 2015 Saudi Arabia has led a coalition of countries in a bombing campaign to overthrow the Houthi government in Yemen (which itself overthrew the previous government). According to the United Nations there have been over 10,000 civilian casualties, with the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes responsible for the majority of casualties. In 2016 the Yemen Data Project – a group of academics, human rights organisers and activists – reported that one third of Saudi-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. Martha Mundy, emeritus professor at the London School of Economics, believes “that in some regions, the Saudis are deliberately striking at agricultural infrastructure in order to destroy the civil society.”

The US and UK have been closely collaborating with Saudi Arabia in Yemen. “We’ll support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat… political support, of course, logistical and technical support”, the then UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced a month into the bombardment. Speaking to me last year, activist Medea Benjamin, author of Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection, explained Saudi Arabia is “getting munitions from the West… The US is even refuelling their planes in the air”. President Obama – described as “the reluctant interventionist” by senior Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland – sold $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia during his eight years in office. This makes the 44th president of the United States “the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history”, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel.

Speaking in January 2017, O’Brien was crystal clear about the main cause of the ongoing humanitarian crisis: “The conflict in Yemen is now the primary driver of the largest food security emergency in the world.”

The Guardian has form when it comes to (not) reporting the causes of the deepening humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Surveying the newspaper’s coverage of Yemen between June 2016 and mid-January 2017, Peace News Editor Milan Rai concluded “The critical role of the Saudi blockade in creating these conditions in Yemen has been effectively suppressed by the British media, including Britain’s most liberal mainstream newspaper, the Guardian.” According to Rai there were 70 stories or editorials about Yemen on the Guardian website during this period: “Most of those 70 items (42 stories, 60 per cent of the total) do not mention the humanitarian crisis – or the role of the Saudi blockade – in any way at all.” And though the other 28 articles did refer to the humanitarian crisis “most did so only in a way that effectively suppressed the information”, Rai notes.

Unsurprisingly a recent YouGov/Independent poll found more than half of British people were unaware of the war in Yemen, with just 37 percent of 18-24 year olds aware of the conflict.

Turning to Somalia, on 13 March 2017 the Guardian published a full page article on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in east Africa. “As many as 6.2 million Somalis – more than half the population – need urgent food assistance”, noted the Guardian, including “some districts… under the control of Islamist rebels al-Shahaab, making [aid] access complicated.” There is one mention of the US – “The US government says it has spent more than $110m on humanitarian assistance in Somalia in 2017.”

In reality, the US has been heavily involved in Somali affairs since the 1990s. These interventions, noted BBC journalist Mary Harper in her 2012 book Getting Somalia Wrong?, are viewed by “a growing number of experts” as having “contributed towards [Somalia’s] destruction as a viable nation-state.”

Speaking to Democracy Now! in 2013, journalist Jeremy Scahill explained that in the early years of the ‘war on terror’ the Bush Administration “made a disastrous decision to put [Somali] warlords on the CIA payroll” and “basically had them acting as an assassination squad.” A relative stability was created for a brief period when the Islamic Courts Union took control in 2006 – quickly shattered by the December 2006 US-supported Ethiopian invasion and occupation. The occupation, as occupations often tend to do, energised extremists, with Somali journalist Jamal Osman explaining “al-Shabaab was born when Ethiopia invaded Somalia in 2006 and some still see the group as a resistance movement.”

Since then the US has been trying to destroy the group its actions helped create. In 2012 the Los Angeles Times reported “The US has been quietly equipping and training thousands of African soldiers to wage a widening proxy war against the Shabaab”.

“Officially, the troops are under the auspices of the African Union”, the report explained. “But in truth, according to interviews by US and African officials and senior military officers and budget documents, the 15,000-strong force pulled from five African countries is largely a creation of the State Department and Pentagon”. The US government “is trying to achieve US military goals with minimal risk of American deaths and scant public debate”, the Los Angeles Times noted. Since then the US has intensified its clandestine war in Somalia “using Special Operations troops, airstrikes, private contractors and African allies in an escalating campaign against Islamist militants”, according to the New York Times last year.

Like Yemen, the US military involvement in Somalia has negatively affected the country’s ability to deal with humanitarian crises. For example, though the Financial Times explains the looming famine in Somalia is primarily the result of regional drought, it goes on to note “The lack of effective government and an insurgency by al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked jihadi group, have not helped.”

This quick survey of the Guardian’s recent coverage of Yemen and Somalia puts the lie to Guardian regular Polly Toynbee’s claim the newspaper is “always free to hold power to account: to take on politicians, global corporations, the secret security state or great vested interests.” The Guardian may well be free to hold power to account but it’s currently missing some huge open goals when it comes to Western foreign policy.

To be clear, I’m not saying the Guardian never mentions Western interference in Yemen and Somalia or links this to the growing humanitarian crises – I’m arguing the newspaper’s coverage does not match the importance of the issue. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue in their 1988 book Manufacturing Consent “That the media provide some information about an issue… proves absolutely nothing about the adequacy or accuracy of media coverage… More important is the way they present a particular fact – its placement, tone, and frequency of repetition – and the framework of analysis in which it is placed.”

Indeed, by downplaying of US intervention in Yemen and Somalia the Guardian have helped to keep the large swatches of the general public ignorant of Western foreign policy (see the YouGov/Independent poll) – a state of affairs that suits the US government’s interests, as the Los Angeles Times report above makes clear.

Getting US intervention in Syria wrong: a response to Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’

Getting US intervention in Syria wrong: a response to Jamie Allinson’s ‘Disaster Islamism’
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
16 March 2017

In February 2017 Dr Jamie Allinson, a Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh, published an article titled ‘Disaster Islamism’ in the revolutionary leftist Salvage magazine.

Allinson spends the first section of the article slaying a number of what he sees as leftist myths about the on-going Syrian conflict.

For example, he refers to “the myth of ISIS as US creation”. After reading his article I tweeted Allinson asking “which credible commentators, analysts or writers subscribe to this myth?” Allinson replied, noting Noam Chomsky and the former Guardian columnist Seamus Milne make the argument and that it’s “a pervasive belief on Stop the War and/ pro-Palestine marches I’ve been on, and very common on FB [Facebook] etc.” I checked Allinson’s sources, and found in the Milne article Allinson pointed me to that Milne clearly states “That doesn’t mean the US created ISIS, of course”. The Chomsky interview Allinson refers to has Chomsky quoting an ex-CIA Officer arguing ISIS grew out of US occupation of Iraq — an argument Allinson describes as “true” (though “inadequate”) in his article. Allinson’s smearing of Milne and Chomsky and citing the views of unnamed protesters is a textbook example of building a straw man to knock down, allowing Allinson to ignore more credible and sophisticated arguments and voices about Western intervention in Syria. When I pointed this out to Allinson he dismissively replied “Glad to hear it. Look forward to your disabusing people of that belief on StW marches. See you later.”

Unfortunately for Allinson the rest of the section of his article looking at Western involvement in the Syria war is littered with inaccuracies. As the article is 1) published in the influential and respected (amongst the Left, at least) Salvage 2) many of his arguments are repeated by others on the left including respected academic Professor Gilbert Achcar and Salvage Co-Founder Richard Seymour 3) Allinson criticises others for having a “dogged resistance… to empirical evidence” and 4) Allinson teaches the Middle East at one of the UK’s top universities, it is worth considering his assertions in detail.

I apologise for the length and repetitiveness of my rebuttal in advance — I thought it was important to present as much of the evidence as clearly as possible.

Has the US been pursuing regime change in Syria?

Allison believes it is a myth that “the US has pursued a policy of regime change to topple the Ba’athist Assad regime”. “There is not, and never has been, An American imperial policy to overthrow the Ba’athist regime in Damascus”, he repeats emphatically later in the piece.

How should one assess whether the US has pursued regime change in Syria? First, one could consider the statements of the US government itself. “Assad must go — and I believe he will go”, President Obama stated in March 2013. In May 2013 White House Press Secretary confirmed “We have been making clear as a matter of United States policy that we believe that Assad must not continue to rule Syria”. In September 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry reconfirmed “President Obama’s policy is that Assad must go.” While one should always be wary of taking the public utterances of established power at face value, it is important to consider the enabling effect these statements of intent will have had on Syrian rebels and those who support them.

Many mainstream news outlets agree the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria. On 23 July 2012 the International Herald Tribune included the front page headline ‘US focuses on efforts to topple Assad government’, with the accompanying story noting the Obama Administration “is increasing aid to the rebels and redoubling efforts to rally a coalition of like-minded countries to forcibly bring down” the Syrian government. The same month the Wall Street Journal reported “The US has been mounting a secret but limited effort to speed the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, without using force, scrambling spies and diplomats to block arms and oil shipments from Iran and passing intelligence to frontline allies.” In October 2015 theWashington Post’s Liz Sly referred in passing to one of “the Obama administration’s goals in Syria — Assad’s negotiated exist from power.” Writing in July 2016, Dr Austin Carson, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Chicago, and Dr Michael Poznansky, an Assistant Professor of International Affairs and Intelligence Studies in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh, noted the US is trying to achieve regime change in Syria.

US actions have broadly followed their public statements saying they wanted Assad removed from power. Since early 2012 the US has increasingly intervened in Syria, from making public statements about the Syrian government’s future, to sanctioning members of the Syrian government and sending non-lethal aid to the rebels who are trying to violently overthrow Assad. In 2013 Obama authorised the CIA to set up a programme, codenamed Timber Sycamore, to train and equip Syrian rebels. Citing US officials, in June 2015 the Washington Post estimated the programme — “one of the agency’s largest covert operations” — was spending $1bn a year and had trained and equipped 10,000 rebels.

Though conveniently ignored by Allinson, it is impossible to assess whether the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria without considering the US’s relationship with its allies in the region — specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey. With all three countries keen to overthrow Assad, one would presume that if, as Allinson claims, the US wasn’t pursuing regime change in Syria, the US would have nothing to do with the attempts by its allies to topple the Assad government. In reality, the evidence clearly shows that US policy has been to use (and work closely with) Saudi Arabia and Qatar to try to overthrow the Syrian government.

Citing US and Arab officials, in June 2012 the Wall Street Journal reported that “The US in many ways is acting in Syria through proxies, primarily Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates”. In November 2012 the New York Times pondered whether the US should directly arm the rebels “rather than only continuing to use other countries, especially Qatar, to do so.” As “Assad has shown no signs of leaving — the United States has slowly stepped up its assistance to include non-lethal military support, while acknowledging and tacitly welcoming arms that are being supplied by both Saudi Arabia and Qatar”, noted the Washington Post in April 2013. And in June 2013 the Los Angeles Times noted that arms shipments from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries to Syrian rebels were “provided with assent from the US.”

Dr Christopher Phillips, an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, provides some background to the US’s use of its regional proxies in his 2016 book The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the Middle East:

…they [the West, circa 2011–12] endorsed the regional powers’ support for the rebels. Western intelligence knew of regional arms transfers and financial support and, while they urged coordination, there were few efforts to stop them. Indeed, [US Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton effectively gave the green light, admitting in her memoirs that at a meeting in Riyadh in March 2012 she acknowledged what was already happening: ‘certain countries would increase their efforts to funnel arms, while others [i.e. the US] would focus on humanitarian needs.’ Yet far from standing by, the CIA and other western intelligence services allegedly facilitated many of these operations. (p. 143)

Dr Christopher Davidson, a Reader in Middle East politics at Durham University, seems to broadly agree, noting in his book Shadow Wars: The Secret Struggle for the Middle East — in a section titled ‘Syria — Enter the Proxies’ — that the Gulf monarchies “were encouraged” by the West “to enmesh themselves in the politics and financing of the Syrian opposition.” Davidson cites an article in Foreign Policy by journalist Elizabeth Dickinson: “Qatar had such freedom to run its network for the last three years because Washington was looking the other way. In fact, in 2011, the United States gave Doha de facto free rein to do what it wasn’t willing to in the Middle East: intervene.” By May 2013 a Financial Times article co-authored by Roula Khalaf was citing people close to the Qatar government saying that Qatar had contributed as much as $3bn to the Syrian rebels.

As Obama’s Vice President Joe Biden explained in 2012, the US has been working “hand in glove” with Saudi Arabia and its other allies in the region. “Officials in the Central Intelligence Agency knew that Saudi Arabia was serious about toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad when the Saudi King named Prince Bander bin Sultan al-Saud to lead the effort”, reported the Wall Street Journal in August 2013. “They believed that Prince Bander… could deliver what the CIA couldn’t: planeloads of money and arms”. Having worked together since the 1980s, according to a January 2016 New York Timesreport Saudi Arabia was a “willing partner” in the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme to support rebels fighting to overthrow Assad. “From the moment the CIA operation was started, Saudi money supported it.”

A couple of interim conclusions. First, it is concerning that the establishment corporate media seems to have a more sceptical and sharper analysis of US foreign policy in the Middle East than an academic whose expertise is the Middle East and is writing for a revolutionary leftist publication.

Second, despite Allinson’s denial, there is substantial evidence the US has been pursing regime change in Syria — confirmed by its own public statements, Obama authorising the CIA to set up a multi-billion dollar programme to support the armed opposition trying to overthrow the Assad government, and the US giving the green light to — and then working closely with — its regional allies working to topple Assad.

Of course, it’s important to remember, as Allinson argues in an article he wrote for New Left Project in 2012, that the Syrian conflict is “extremely complicated and difficult for even those within the country to grasp, let alone those outside of it.” US policy has not been static on Syria. Like any state’s foreign policy towards a long-term, multi-dimensional conflict, US policy on Syria has evolved over time. There is evidence that suggests the US actively pursued regime change in the earlier stages of the conflict, and then perhaps reduced its expectations from around 2014 onwards — looking to create the conditions on the battlefield (a stalemate) that would produce a the political settlement and the eventual exit of Assad, as Sly notes above (though this still sounds a lot like regime change to me). It’s also clear that senior Obama Administration officials and arms of the US state have had different positions and aims when it came to Syria. The discussions and divisions within Obama’s national security team have been extensively reported, as has the differing aims and methods of the Pentagon and CIA in country.

Has the US only armed Syrian rebels with the precondition the arms would only be used against ISIS?

Discussing the US funding and arming anti-Assad militias, Allinson asserts “the amount of weaponry and ammunition actually supplied by the US has been highly limited and the precondition of its supply was that it be used against ISIS rather than Assad”.

It’s an astonishing claim — refuted by a cursory glance at mainstream news reporting. While the US has spent significant funds trying to support rebels groups fighting ISIS, the US has also played a central — and much bigger — role in supporting the rebels trying to overthrow the Assad government. As the New York Times explained in January 2016 (an article Allinson cites in his own article):

The CIA training program is separate from another program to arm Syrian rebels, one the Pentagon ran that has since ended. That program was designed to train rebels to combat Islamic State fighters in Syria, unlike the CIA’s program, which focuses on rebel groups fighting the Syrian military.

Has the US been interested in increasing weapons supplies to the Syrian rebels fighting Assad?

“Where the US has the most influence over weaponry supplies we see less or no fighting against Assad”, argues Allinson. “The evidence is conclusive; and incompatible with the claim that the US has armed the FSA to overthrow the Ba’athist regime.” Moreover, Allinson continues, “the aim of the [US’s covert operations] was not to increase the supply of weapons… but to ‘try to gain control of it.’”

Considering the evidence I’ve already presented above (available to anyone who bothers to look at the US mainstream press coverage of Syria) this is another astonishing claim by Allinson, though one repeated elsewhere.

In the real world countless media reports clearly show the US has been involved in increasing the amount of weapons going to the Syrian rebels which, unsurprisingly, has led to gains for the rebels on the battlefield — that is, more fighting with Syrian government forces, not less, as Allinson bizarrely claims.

In March 2013 the New York Times noted “With the help of the CIA, Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months.” The report goes on to summarise a former American official as saying “the size of the shipments and the degree of distributions” the CIA were helping to send to the rebels “are voluminous.” No less than the US Secretary of State told Syrian activists in 2016 that the US had “been putting an extraordinary amount of arms” into Syria. In his book Phillips refers to “vast sums [of arms] provided” (p. 145) to the Syrian rebels.

Compare Allinson’s claim that US influence over arms deliveries reduces fighting against the Assad government with the following reports. Washington Post, May 2012: “Syrian rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States… The new supplies reversed months of setbacks for the rebels”. New York Times, March 2013: Qatari flights supplying arms to the rebels (“with help from the CIA”) “aligned with the tide-turning military campaign by rebel forces in the northern province of Idlib” which “began driving Mr. Assad’s military and supporting militias from parts of the countryside.” New York Times, October 2015: “Insurgent commanders say that… they are receiving for the first time bountiful supplies of powerful American-made antitank missiles… making a diplomatic settlement all the more unlikely.” These missiles “began arriving in the region in 2013, through a covert program run by the United States, Saudi Arabia and other allies”.Washington Post, October 2015: “So successful have they [US-made antitank missiles] been in driving rebel gains in northwestern Syria that rebels call the missile the ‘Assad Tamer’… in recent days they have been used with great success to slow the Russian-backed offensive”. In July 2016, two former members of the US National Security Council argued that those who support more US intervention in Syria “fail to recognize that the United States in fact has effectively weakened President Bashar al-Assad already. In 2015, the administration’s aggressive covert action program facilitated significant gains for the opposition in northern Syria”.

If the US has been pursuing regime change in Syria, why hasn’t it succeeded?

If the CIA “were heavily arming and supporting the Syrian opposition to overthrow the regime, we would have seen very different results”, argues Allinson. He later repeats this point, writing “If this is an attempt to overthrow the regime, it is a rather poor show.”

It’s an attractive argument but one that seems a little simplistic to me. While it is the world’s sole superpower, the US is not an all-powerful God but a state with competing priorities, domestic political pressures and finite budgets. Recent history — Iraq and Afghanistan — suggests the US does not always get want it wants. In Vietnam the US had the military power to ‘win’ the war but was unable to deploy this fully due to US public opinion.

Something similar seems to have happened with Syria. With the US preparing to conduct airstrikes on the Syrian government after its alleged use of chemical weapons in August 2013, New York Times/CBS News and Gallup polling both showed relatively low public support for military action — “among the lowest for any intervention Gallup has asked about in the last 20 years.” Kerry highlighted the government’s concern with public opinion and the American political landscape in his 2016 discussion with Syrian activists about US intervention in Syria: “How many wars have we been fighting? We’ve been fighting in Afghanistan, we’ve been fighting in Iraq, we’ve been fighting in the region for, you know, 14 years. A lot of Americans don’t believe we should be fighting and sending young Americans over to die in another country. That’s the problem. Congress won’t vote to do it.”

The rebel forces the US and its regional allies have been supporting have been riven by disunity and infighting. The US’s allies themselves have pursued their own national interests, according to Phillips (p. 145), which “helped produce a rebel marketplace that saw militia compete for resources rather than unite.”According to Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, “America failed not because it didn’t try, but because its moderates were incompetent and unpopular. As soon as they began taking money and orders from America, they were tarred by radicals as CIA agents, who were corrupt and traitors to the revolution. America was toxic, and everything it touched turned to sand in its hands.”

Moreover, the Russian and Iranian support for Assad, in particular the direct Russian intervention in September 2015 — something Clinton didn’t think would happen when discussing overthrowing Assad in 2012 — is arguably the key factor why US attempts to overthrow Assad have failed. Phillips: “For every rebel gain, the regime received greater support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah.” (p. 144) And here is the kicker: “As long as the regime retained its own foreign supporters, who appeared far more committed to Assad’s survival than western states were to his removal, it is unlikely that a limited number of western arms would force any compromise.” (p. 144–5) In short, Russia was able to overtly and decisively wade knee deep in the Syrian slaughter and not pay the price domestically (and perhaps internationally) that the US would likely have done for a similar level of intervention.

Conclusions

While Allinson admonishes others for their “dogged resistance… to empirical evidence”, it is clear Allinson himself ignores and therefore refuses to engage with the voluminous evidence that contradicts many of his central assertions about US intervention in Syria.

In turning his back on inconvenient facts, Allinson repeats a number of falsehoods about the US in Syria, significantly underplaying the level of the US interference in the conflict. As I have shown, the US is deeply involved in the Syrian war, helping to escalate and prolong the violence. There is considerable evidence to suggest the US (and the UK) has also played a key role in blocking a peaceful solution to the conflict. Therefore the US, along with Russia, Iran and other external actors such as the UK, is partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dead, the massive refugee flows and the wider destruction of Syria as a political, economic and cultural entity.

This uncomfortable reality is likely one reason why the US has chosen to make its largest and most effective intervention in the war (the CIA’s Timber Sycamore programme) a covert operation. This secrecy, even when it has been compromised by widespread media reports, serves a number of purposes. First, the covert nature of the intervention allows the US government to minimise public discussion and scrutiny. Second, as Carson and Poznansky argue, “any escalatory incidents or clashes can be obscured from the ‘audience’ (i.e. domestic publics and third party states), which preserves face-saving ways to de-escalate”. Finally, regime change is illegal under international law, which means “the very nature of what the United States is trying to achieve in Syria — regime change — renders such concerns particularly salient”, according to Carson and Poznansky. The US’s covert action thus allows for what is known as “plausible deniability”.

“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyse actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions”, Professor Noam Chomsky wrote in his 1969 book American Power and the New Mandarins. Rather than expose the nefarious actions of the US government in Syria, by downplaying the level of US intervention in the face of overwhelming evidence Allinson is helping the US government continue to deceive Western publics.

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson

Book review: Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East by Christopher Davidson
by Ian Sinclair
Red Pepper
February-March 2017

Having published the critically-acclaimed After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies in 2012, with his new book Christopher Davidson has broadened his analysis out to the wider Middle East. For Davidson, a Reader in Politics at Durham University, ‘the primary blame for not only the failure of the Arab Spring, but also the dramatic and well-funded rise of Islamist extremist organizations’ such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State ‘must rest with the long-running policies of successive imperial and “advanced-capitalist” administrations’ – that is, the West.

The 670-page tome (including 120 pages of footnotes) begins with a fascinating survey of the US and UK’s long history of interference around the world, opposed to any independent and democratic forces which might endanger access to natural resources or reduce the West’s geo-political advantage. In the Middle East this often covert counter-revolutionary strategy meant backing monarchs, radical Islamists and other reactionary forces, with the US taking the reins from the fading British Empire in the early 1950s. Davidson’s frequent citing of British historian Mark Curtis and American dissident William Blum hint at his own politics, though Shadow Wars delivers more detail and expertise than either Curtis or Blum. For example, there is an absorbing section about the US and UK’s support for the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in 1980s Afghanistan. “The US deliberately chose to back the most dangerous elements of the insurgency”, Davidson notes. The danger of this Machiavellian strategy was obvious, with 9/11 the shocking blowback.

Likely to be provocative to many, Davidson highlights a number of uncomfortable facts in chapters titled ‘Enter the Islamic State – A Phantom Menace’ and, more controversially, ‘The Islamic State – A Strategic Asset’. There is a welcome mention of the formerly classified 2012 US Defence Intelligence Agency report that notes the West wanted a ‘Salafist Principality’ to be established in Eastern Syria. Davidson also highlights how US-UK close allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar have supported the Islamic State – confirmed by Hillary Clinton’s recently leaked emails that show the former US Secretary of State explaining the two Gulf monarchies are providing ‘clandestine financial and logistic support’ to the Islamic State ‘and other radical Sunni groups in the region’. So much for the Clash of Civilizations.

An accessible, though scholarly, tour de force, Shadow Wars is absolutely essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the West’s ongoing and deadly interventions in the Middle East.

Shadow Wars. The Secret Struggle for the Middle East is published by Oneworld Publications, priced £25.

*An edited version of this review appears in Red Pepper