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Posts tagged ‘Iraq’

Climate Change or Terrorism: Which is the True Existential Threat?

Climate change is “the most severe problem that we are facing today—more serious even than the threat of terrorism”.

So said the then UK Chief Scientific Adviser, David King back in 2004.

It’s a view that’s been echoed by, among others, President Obama in this year’s State of the Union address.

Eleven years on, King’s comment came to mind as the UK parliament debated and approved air strikes on Islamic State in Syria at the same time as delegates from more than 190 countries were meeting at the UN climate summit in Paris to try to agree a deal to prevent catastrophic climate change.

The Syria vote took up many more column inches than the goings on in Paris despite the presence of world leaders, including Obama and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the opening of the summit.

Polls in Britain about the most important issues facing the World, indicate terrorism is seen as a much greater threat than global warming. It also seems public concern about climate change has declined since the last disappointing key UN climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009.

Why should this be when the scientific consensus is that unless the world takes measures now global temperatures will rise by more than 2 degrees and cause catastrophic changes in the climate that will pose a grave threat to all of humanity?

Some climate scientists think it’s partly their fault. They believe they gave people the impression climate change would be more dramatic and also that it may be too late to do much about it. But climate change is likely to be gradual and psychology suggests if people think they can’t do much about something, they will most likely carry on as usual.

But political leaders and the media also bear some responsibility.

When there is a terrorist attack, there is frequent talk about terrorism as an existential threat.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, himself has said he believes IS is an “existential threat” to the UK.

According to the dictionary “existential” means “relating to existence”. So an “existential threat” to the UK is something that threatens the very survival of the country.

Does the Prime Minister really believe IS poses a threat to Britain’s national survival in the same way Nazi Germany did in 1940?

Surely not?

But he is not alone in using this language – other politicians and media commentators have also liberally used the cliché – and it is bound to have an impact on public perceptions.

Anecdotally, I know well-informed people who agree with this assessment of the scale of the IS threat and dismiss climate change as exaggerated – when it is precisely the other way round.

The frog in boiling water is the analogy that’s used to explain the lack of urgency about taking action to combat global warming. Then there’s the fact that because climate science is developing all the time, there is always an element of uncertainty about it, even if the broad trends are clear.

However, there’s already evidence that climate change will disrupt our way of life and threaten the existence of states.

The Pentagon and other defence ministries now recognise climate change as a threat to national security and see it as a driver of conflict.

One of the causes of the unrest that led to Syria’s devastating civil war that may well end in the permanent disintegration of the country was prolonged drought and it’s very likely climate change was a cause of that drought. It’s this research Prince Charles was referring to in a recent interview with Sky News when he grabbed headlines by suggesting a link between terrorism and climate change.

The conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region, which the UN estimates has killed around 300,000 and displaced almost 3 million, has also been linked to drought caused by long-term changes in climate.

Another problem when it comes to public perceptions of the two is that while terrorist attacks are sudden and shocking – that is the whole point of them in the eyes of the people carrying them out – climate change is incremental.

We humans also seem to find it far easier to empathise with the relatively small numbers of victims of sudden random violence than we do the large numbers whose lives are threatened by an creeping menace like climate change.

I don’t intend to diminish the impact terrorism has on its victims and their loved ones.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of a terrorist attack then it is an existential threat to you.

But, unless you live in a handful of countries like Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Somalia or Afghanistan,terrorism is not a threat to the future of your country. It’s also not a threat to human existence. Climate change, on the other hand, probably is.

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IS: The Limits of Conventional Wisdom

Would Islamic State have attacked Paris twice this year killing almost 150 people if France weren’t bombing it in Iraq and Syria?

Would IS have blown up an airliner killing 229 Russian tourists and aircrew, if Moscow had not intervened in Syria?

Would IS have bombed Shi’ite suburbs of Beirut killing at least 43 if Hezbollah was not fighting alongside President Assad’s forces?

Would IS have launched attacks in Turkey killing 134 peace protesters if Ankara had not turned against it over Syria?

I’m not asking these questions to imply the victims of these attacks somehow brought it on themselves.

I’m asking because as President Hollande said this week his country is “at war” with IS – it has been since it started air strikes against its forces last year – and in a war you are likely to get attacked.

I’m also asking because when IS – or ISIL or ISIS or Daesh – hit world headlines by seizing Iraq’s second city, Mosul, last year, the conventional wisdom among the experts and analysts was that IS was a different kind of threat from al Qaeda – whose signature is mass casualty terrorist attacks anywhere it finds a target, like the 9/11 attacks in the US or the Bali bombing.

It may have emerged out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the argument went that ISIS – the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – was what it said on the tin – an organisation dedicated to carving out a state from those two countries.

It followed from there that IS was fighting a more conventional style war with the aim of capturing territory. Sure it used terror against its enemies by publicising on social media the atrocities it carried out when it occupied towns and took prisoners – be they regular Iraqi troops or Yezidi women and girls – but it was not interested in attacking targets further afield.

If this was a correct reading of IS then, we now know only too well it isn’t anymore.

It is tempting to see IS attacks outside Syria and Iraq as a direct response to the intervention of foreign forces against it that began after the fall of Mosul and its advances across the border in Syria.

But one of the first such incidents linked to IS was the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 – before the fall of Mosul and several months before the US-led campaign against it began.

Whatever motivated the change in tactics by IS, the conventional wisdom has been proved to be very wrong.

With the escalation of terrorist strikes and the shock of its assault in the heart of a major western capital, the focus is on how to eradicate the Islamist group.

Here another piece of conventional wisdom comes in – that destroying Islamic State in Syria and Iraq can be achieved, but only by using large numbers of ground troops.

Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by US air strikes have had some success and recently retook the town of Sinjar. But the Iraqi army and its Shia militia allies have made heavy weather of retaking Ramadi and the much-awaited offensive to retake Mosul is still to get underway. They clearly need reinforcements though where they may come from is not clear.

But is this wisdom also flawed?

Is there the danger the defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq would see it resorting to more mass casualty attacks in the region and beyond?

Remember, after 9/11, the overthrow of its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan didn’t prevent al Qaeda and its followers around the world carrying out further terrorist attacks, including Europe’s worst to date: the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed more than 190 people as they travelled to work.

The challenge many European countries face is that they have quite a few young Muslim citizens who are attracted to Islamist ideology.

This seems to be because they are deeply alienated from mainstream society and deeply angry about what they see as their countries’ policies towards the Muslim world.

But being attracted to the ideology and carrying out acts of terrorist violence for the cause are two different things.

What makes some people take to bombing and shooting their fellow citizens is not yet well enough understood. The studies that have been done suggest it’s a complex combination of societal and psychological factors as well as ideology.

Whatever the precise triggers, European countries, like France and Britain, are grappling with a volatile mix – the legacy of their imperial past in the Middle East and North Africa added to recent policies in the region which have angered substantial numbers of alienated young Muslim men and women.

The final ingredient – the detonator – seems to be the appeal of groups like IS offering what to these young people may appear a romantic cause of fighting to restore a glorious past – in this case the Caliphate.

So alongside more effective security measures and increased vigilance from ordinary people, to stop further attacks European countries need to take a deep breath, not overreact to Paris, and try to address the causes of Islamist violence.

So far the prospects don’t look good.

The French and British governments are both proposing changes that will enhance powers that will restrict people’s freedom.

Yet, French politicians and commentators have echoed their counterparts in Britain and other countries that have suffered Islamist-inspired violence by saying the terrorists’ target is the European way of life. So, surely the worst response would be to resort to unreasonable restrictions on people’s rights and freedoms in the name of defeating IS?

If this is partly an ideological struggle, that would be conceding valuable ground.

 

Russia: Anything You Can Do ….

Watching Russia’s military intervention in Syria unfold has taken me back to my secondary school days when we put on the musical Annie Get Your Gun.

You may remember it from its best-known song “Anything you can do” and with the Russians carrying our air strikes in support of Syrian ground forces and using cruise missiles launched from ships in the far-off Caspian Sea, Moscow seems to be sending that same message to Washington

Where the US used its air power to help the Kosovo Liberation Army against Serbian forces in 1999 and give the Northern Alliance the edge against the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and where the US Navy used cruise missiles against Iraq, Serbia and Libya, the Russians seem to be using their Syria campaign to put down a marker and demonstrate the US and its NATO allies aren’t the only ones who have such capabilities.

And it is not just in military prowess that President Putin is showing he can do at least some of the things the US and NATO have pretty much had a monopoly on up to now.

More significantly, Moscow is showing that when the US decided to disregard the niceties of international law and the rules-based international system it did so much to establish after 1945, it set a dangerous precedent others would follow.

There has been quite a bit of commentary in western outlets about how Russia’s actions expose the relative decline of US power and also President Obama’s unwillingness to exercise the considerable power the US undoubtedly still possesses.

Russia’s Syria intervention is being seen as evidence that Putin is taking advantage of the unwillingness and inability of the US to lead and we are now living in a G-Zero world where power is exercised – by those who have it – in the pursuit of national interests rather than the common good.

But this analysis is missing some key points.

While it’s true US power is in relative decline and Obama has been reticent in using the conventional military on a large-scale – though not drones and special forces – the US itself is partly responsible for undermining the international order it criticises Russia for flouting.

From the 1989 invasion of Panama, through its disregard for the UN in the 1999 assault on Serbia, to Iraq in 2003, the Americans showed that when rules got in the way of what they wanted to do, they would be bent or just ignored – hence, former Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s self-serving formulation of the Kosovo intervention as “not legal but … right”.

The US response to Russian criticism over its manipulation of international law has been to argue each case is unique or “sui generis” and to insist it hasn’t set a precedent.

Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t get to decide what sets a precedent and what doesn’t. And since 2007, Putin seems to have decided that while continuing to publicly argue for the primacy of international law, Russia would use American conduct to justify its own actions.

When it went to war with Georgia in 2008 over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and subsequently recognised their independence from Tbilisi, Russia justified its action as humanitarian intervention and cited what the US and NATO had done in Kosovo.

Putin’s justification for annexing Crimea also cited previous western actions.

In entering the Syrian conflict, Putin’s case is more clear cut under international law given he was invited in by President Assad, who heads what is still recognised by the UN as the government of Syria, though we are yet to see if the conduct of the Russian campaign conforms to the laws of war.

If the world is to bolster the international system and establish a semblance of stability, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, where let’s not forget a Saudi-led Gulf alliance has also taken a leaf out of the US book by intervening in Yemen’s civil war (and I’m surprised Moscow hasn’t cited this yet as another precedent for its actions in Syria), then a starting point would be to return to diplomacy over Syria.

An international system based on rules, rather then “might is right”, requires that all the international players, especially the US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, swallow their pride and sit down together to thrash out a political solution that isolates the extremists of Islamic State and al-Nusra and ends Syria’s war and the suffering of its people.

With Russia escalating its attacks, NATO making angry noises at Moscow and Saudi Arabia talking about increasing support for the rebels, as things stand it doesn’t look like they’re willing to do this, so we continue on down the rocky road to a G-Zero world.

Yemen: proxy war and war by proxy

There’s more than one nasty war going on in the Arab world.

Iraq and Syria get most of the headlines in western media given the current focus on the threat from Islamic State to European and American interests and citizens, as well as the direct involvement of western military forces in the campaign against IS.

But there’s also a war going on in Yemen, which since neighbouring Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies intervened in March has claimed nearly 2,000 lives and caused a humanitarian crisis as Saudi forces have imposed a tight blockade on much of the country.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened when the complex on-going Yemeni civil war appeared to shift decisively against the government of President Hadi and in favour of Houthi rebels – Shi’ites seen as close to Iran.

The fighting appears to have escalated with Houthi forces being driven out of the strategically important port of Aden and a nearby airbase (which the US has used in the past to carry out drone strikes on al-Qaeda and its allies in Yemen and the region – told you it was complicated).

Reliable press reports suggest what seems to have turned the tables on the Houthis is the recent arrival of ground troops – both regular and special forces -from the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia has also been funding Sunni rebel groups in Syria against President Assad, while Iran – rather than Russia – has been the main source of foreign support for the beleaguered Syrian government.

This aspect of the Syrian conflict is very much an old-fashioned proxy war and it has added greatly to the complexity and destructiveness of what is also a civil war.

The parallels with Yemen are clear. Though unlike Syria, Yemen is next door to Saudi Arabia and so direct intervention is a practical option.

To Sunni Saudi eyes, the Shia Houthis are like the Syrian government, which is dominated by Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam. They are apostates and allies of Riyadh’s great Shia rival for influence in Middle East – Iran.

But the Saudis are not freelancing. Its coalition’s intervention has the full backing of the United States, which is supplying arms and intelligence.

The US Navy has also been deployed off Yemen to prevent Iranian ships docking, citing suspicions they may be carrying arms for the Houthis.

So for Washington, Yemen is more like war by proxy against Iran.

In this way it resembles some of the conflicts of the Cold War where the US backed one side and the Soviet Union another.

What is also striking is the absence of any talk of “humanitarian intervention”.

There have been “humanitarian pauses” in Yemen where the two sides have agreed to (frequently broken) ceasefires to allow delivery of aid to civilians by the UN and NGOs.

But there has been no hiding that the intervention in Yemen is part of a good old-fashioned, geo-political power struggle.

Saudi Arabia moved when it thought its side was losing.

Perhaps after the debacle of Libya where the Responsibility to Protect was invoked and NATO, endorsed by the UN Security Council, intervened leading to the overthrow of Colonel Gadaffi and the country’s collapse into its current anarchic state, there is a realisation the humanitarian rhetoric just doesn’t wash any more.

Also, since Libya there’s been Syria.

If anything has demonstrated that the era of Sierra Leone and Kosovo in the late 1990s where western intervention in local conflicts was justified on moral grounds has passed, it is the international response to the Syrian conflict.

Instead of trying to help end an escalating civil war, the US, its western and Turkish allies took sides early against President Assad, who has been backed by Iran and Russia.

Despite this though, there has been a reluctance to get directly involved in the battle against Assad. Instead, the US has used its diplomatic muscle to try to undermine his government’s international legitimacy and support his non-Islamist opponents, as well as ill-fated efforts to train so-called moderate rebels.

For their part, Moscow and Tehran have propped Damascus up with arms – and in Iran’s case with money and military advisors.

In all this, the humanitarian interests of Syrian civilians have seemingly counted for a lot less than the struggle over the fate of President Assad.

The UN-led aid operation to help those forced to flee their homes has been chronically underfunded and most western countries have been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees – helping to drive the surge in migrants trying to get into the EU by any means.

So as the World continues its transition from one dominated by the US to one where there are competing centres of power prepared to back different sides in conflicts – and stymie UN action when their interests are directly involved – we can expect to become more familiar with proxy wars and wars by proxy like the one in Yemen.

PS

I was going to write about the EU migrant crisis this week but could not have said anything more poignant than my friend and former colleague, Robin Lustig. You can read his blog here.

Calais migrant crisis – something must be done …. of course

“Send in the army”.

That familiar bedfellow of “something must be done” can now be heard coming from the mouths of British politicians and commentators.

They offer it as a solution to the Calais migrant crisis that’s been disrupting links between France and Britain for weeks incommoding commerce and tourism alike.

Apart from the fact England lost control of Calais in the sixteenth century and it is now part of sovereign French territory, the proposal that British troops be sent to France to secure the Ferry and Eurotunnel terminals and prevent the thousands of migrants there from attempting to stow away on lorries or get through the Channel Tunnel is not a solution.

As things stand London is struggling to convince that it is on top of the situation.

But the pressure Cameron is under is partly of his own making.

His government has failed to keep its – arguably unrealistic – promise five years ago to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year, so any sense that migration is “out of control” leads to loud headlines and the need to appear to take decisive action.

This means things that are done like providing money for improved fencing at Calais and the offer of sniffer dogs – which make sense – appear inadequate in the eyes of critics.

Clearly, there is an immediate need.

Migrants who have gathered at makeshift camps near the French port after having made their way – in most cases – from the Middle East and Africa via south and south-east Europe need to be given accommodation and have their claims for asylum processed.

This will almost certainly require large-scale police action, where, if France agrees, British officers can help to move the migrants to alternative sites.

But this is not something military forces should be used – or indeed are trained – for.

Beyond dealing with the immediate problem though, the crisis will not be solved until a few other things are sorted out.

EU countries need to start actually cooperating, rather than merely promising to cooperate, in dealing with the thousands of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean.

Italy and Greece – and now increasingly Hungary – where most of the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese and others first arrive in the EU can’t cope on their own.

EU leaders – with the exception of the Brits, Danes and Hungarians – agreed at their June summit to share the burden by accepting allocations of asylum seekers, but progress is clearly not fast enough to keep up with the numbers arriving.

And while not all the migrants are refugees from conflict and oppression, Britain and its EU partners have a moral and legal obligation to give asylum claims a fair hearing.

The EU could also help to reduce the number of purely economic migrants by getting serious about helping African and Middle Eastern countries provide jobs and decent living standards by opening up their markets and investing in those countries, as well as better targeting development aid.

Such a policy was put in place twenty years ago under the Barcelona Process, but it has always seemed to lose out to other political and economic priorities and has proved inadequate.

But that still leaves the main cause driving the current surge in the number of migrants – the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the anarchic situation in Libya.

The UK has defended its parsimony in giving asylum to Syrian refugees by pointing to the humanitarian aid it is giving to help Syrian refugees in the region and the people displaced inside the country.

It is true Britain is one of the largest aid givers, however, it is revealing that newly released figures show the UK spent much more bombing Libya during the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 than it did on aid to help stabilise the country after his overthrow.

And it is precisely the failure to stabilise Libya and its further descent into chaos that has enabled migrants to cross the Mediterranean in such large numbers.

The same skewed approach can be seen in Syria and Iraq.

The US alone is spending more than $ 9 million a day on its air strikes on Islamic State forces, while the UN-led relief operations for the millions of refugees who have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, let alone the millions displaced inside Syria, are chronically underfunded with less then a third of the money needed arriving so far this year.

So is it any wonder people are desperate enough to risk the journey to Europe?

If the politicians in London want to end the crisis in Calais, they don’t need to send in the troops, they need to shoulder a fairer share of the burden of asylum seekers in the EU, something they are currently refusing to do.

They also need to find the money to spend more on supporting international relief operations and be ready to invest in the reconstruction of Libya, Syria and Iraq if and when the fighting ends and the circumstances allow.

Cameron’s confused counter-terrorism strategy

British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has followed his French counterpart, Manuel Valls, by responding to a terrorist outrage with a major speech and proposals for tougher laws.

Coming in the wake of the attack on a beach in Tunisia which killed 38, mostly British, tourists and more evidence of British-born recruits going to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State, Cameron’s address was billed as a major statement of his government’s counter-terrorism strategy.

Prime Minister Valls delivered similar speeches in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack as a prelude to announcing new laws.

Cameron’s was certainly a detailed and apparently comprehensive assessment of why – in the view of the British government – young Brits are attracted to groups like IS and why they turn to violence.

But can the counter-terrorism strategy it portends have any greater success than its predecessors?

Flaws in the analysis and suggested remedies suggest not.

The Prime Minister began by extolling the virtue of Britain as a successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith society. A “beacon to the world” he called it.

But then went on to make clear Britain isn’t so well integrated after all.

If it were, he wouldn’t have returned to a common theme of his that one of the main problems fuelling Islamic extremism is that there are people in Britain – many born and bred – who don’t share British values.

Those, he argued, are based on liberal values of democracy, freedom and equality.

He then went on to say the government and British society needs to enforce those liberal values. Can values be liberal if they are enforced? Is there not a contradiction there?

But then rather strikingly he only used the word tolerance when he condemned “passive tolerance” of things like forced marriage and female genital mutilation.

This confusion perhaps explains another weakness in the government’s approach.

Cameron correctly identifies Islamic extremism as an ideology, but goes on to argue that if you hold certain ideas, that facilitates violence.

Try this: “We’ve got to show that if you say “yes I condemn terror – but the Kuffar are inferior”, or “violence in London isn’t justified, but suicide bombs in Israel are a different matter” – then you too are part of the problem”

Or this: “… you don’t have to support violence to subscribe to certain intolerant ideas which create a climate in which extremists can flourish.”

The danger here is the Prime Minister is essentially saying some ideas – rather than actions – are impermissible in a democratic, liberal society.

This threatens to undermine the very values Cameron says he is defending.

It is also counter-productive.

If people hold certain ideas and there’s no democratic space for them to make their arguments and enjoy the same freedom as others to think what they like, there is a danger they may be even more likely to turn to violence.

The speech laid repeated emphasis on conspiracy theories as a cause of violent extremism, but denied the role of western foreign policy in alienating young Muslims.

He made selective references to Somalia, Kosovo and Bosnia, where western intervention has sided with Muslims, but failed to even mention Israel/Palestine where Cameron – along with other western leaders – has done little to pressure Israel to end its brutal occupation.

His most confused argument was that because 9/11 – where many Britons were killed – preceded the Iraq invasion then Iraq should not be seen as a cause of Muslim anger. Does he think his audience hasn’t read about how the Bush Administration used 9/11 to galvanise support for the Iraq invasion even though Baghdad had nothing to do with attacks on New York and Washington?

He also failed to address another cause of anger among Muslims – the hundreds of thousands who have died in the wake of western intervention or at the hands of local allies of the West.

And telling young British Muslims IS is brutal and extreme risks patronizing them. After all, IS doesn’t hide it. It revels in its brutality, disseminating images of its murderous actions as part of a deliberate propaganda strategy.

Despite saying the problem isn’t Islam, the fundamental flaw in Cameron’s framing of his argument is it fuels the impression there is a problem with Muslims – they are somehow ‘other’. This threatens to further alienate many Muslims and confirm prejudices and preconceptions of non-Muslims.

This is something governments resisted doing regarding the Irish community when the IRA campaign was at its height in the 1970s and 80s

Instead of making speeches with obviously contestable assertions and arguments, the Prime Minister would be better advised to put more resources into understanding what leads people who hold certain views – be they Islamist or far-right – to turn to suicide bombing and terrorism.

Research that’s been done so far suggests a complex cocktail of the political and social, as well as personal psychology and experience, is responsible.

Unfortunately, this complexity doesn’t brook simple solutions. It also requires greater honesty and self-awareness from western politicians, like David Cameron and Manuel Valls, of the impact of past and present policy on Muslims – both at home and abroad.

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