Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘Islamic State’

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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Syria: Russia opens a window of opportunity?

In the fog of claim and counter claim over the real target of Russian air strikes in Syria one thing is clear: Russia’s direct intervention is intensifying the war and that means even more civilian deaths and more refugees fleeing to neighbouring states and Europe.

It’s estimated 250,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million forced to flee in more than four years of fighting.

So you’d think another foreign power intervening is the last thing Syria needs.

But, depending how others respond, President Putin may have opened a window of opportunity to move towards a political settlement of this confused and confusing conflict.

Russia has joined a growing list of foreign players backing different sides in what is now a four-sided battle between the Syrian government, so called moderate rebels, the Kurds and Islamist insurgents.

Fighting alongside President Assad are Iran, its Shia Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, and now Russia, who’ve sent forces to help prop up a Syrian army short of troops.

Then there are the air forces from the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Bahrain, Jordan, Turkey, Canada, Australia and now France, which joined the fight the same week as the Russians. They are attacking Islamic State, which controls a fair chunk of Syria as well as neighbouring Iraq.

These US-led air strikes are supposed to help the moderate rebels and Kurds, who are fighting IS as well as Assad’s forces.

IS itself originated over the border in Iraq and is estimated to have recruited up to 30,000 foreign fighters from all over the world.

As well as all these international players stoking the flames, the war has dragged on into its fifth year because there’s no international consensus on how to end it.

What began as civil war also quickly became a proxy war between Iran, which is Assad’s key backer, and its Sunni Arab rival Saudi Arabia, which saw an opportunity to remove Tehran’s long-standing ally from power.

Along the way, the varied anti-Assad rebel groups picked up different sponsors with different agendas. In addition to those backed by the Saudis, some were supported by Qatar, some by Turkey, others by the US.

UN efforts to broker a peace deal have been undermined from the start by the failure of the US and Russia to agree on President Assad’s future.

Washington and its western allies made the mistake of assuming Assad wouldn’t last long, so very early on they insisted he could have no role in a settlement.

When he didn’t fall, it left the western powers with little room to manoeuvre between an embarrassing climb-down over Assad or continued, if half-hearted, backing for the rebels.

Despite some signs he may now be prepared to agree a transitional role for the Syrian leader, President Obama can’t yet bring himself to eat the necessary humble pie.

So how could Russia’s intervention open the way to talks?

Moscow says it has entered the war to support the Syrian government’s fight against Islamist terrorists and says its objective is the same as Washington’s.

Except as things stand it isn’t – unless Putin and Obama can break the deadlock over the future of Assad.

Clear strategic thinking is required in Washington and other western capitals.

They need to decide whether their priority is the defeat of Islamic State or getting rid of Assad. Given they decided not to intervene militarily against the Syrian leader but did so against IS, it is safe to assume the defeat of the latter is more important to them. So it’s time policy matched priorities.

In his speech to the UN, Putin offered a grand coalition against IS and this was followed by the first Russian air strikes.

It seems those strikes were aimed at other rebel groups fighting Assad as well as IS. But despite this, the US-led coalition should test Moscow’s proposal and try to forge that grand coalition.

If the war is to be ended and Syria put back together, the international supporters of both Assad and the rebels, especially the Iranians and the Saudis, need to come together and put real pressure on them to stop fighting and start talking.

The UN has its mediation team led by Steffan de Mistura in place to broker negotiations. The legal basis for international involvement is sound too given the Responsibility to Protect can be invoked following the Syrian state’s failure to protect its own citizens and indeed its indiscriminate attacks on many of them.

Alongside the diplomacy, this international coalition would need to agree to isolate IS and the al Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra front and focus their military efforts on reducing the areas under their control.

Of course all this is easier said than done.

It means Washington and Moscow engaging constructively rather than scoring points off each other in the court of international public opinion. Crucially it also means the US needs to agree to sit down at the same table as Iran, as well as Russia, and bring a reluctant Saudi Arabia along too.

It may not work. International pressure may not be enough to stop the fighting, but it can’t make matters any worse than they are now.

The Americans clearly don’t trust the Russians, but Washington needs to agree to Assad’s long-term fate going on the back burner, overcome its reluctance to give Putin a boost and put the interests of the Syrian people and regional stability first.

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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