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 Patrick Cockburn Blog View

The Syrian peace talks arranged by Russia, Turkey and Iran that opened today in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, show that President Bashar al-Assad is winning the six-year-old war, but his final victory may be a long way off. Several participants in the conference have good reasons to fight on and Isis has recently made important advances.

Representatives of some of the rebel armed groups sat on one side of a round table, while the Syrian government delegation sat on the other, but the rebels said there would be no face to face talks. The most positive likely outcome of the meeting would be a reinforcement of the shaky ceasefire that began on 29 December and has been only partly effective. The US is not taking part in the talks, in contrast to previous abortive negotiations, but has sent its ambassador to Kazakhstan indicating that it does not oppose them.

The most important feature of the conference is that it proves that Russia’s military intervention in the civil war on the side of Mr Assad since 2015 has promoted it to being the most powerful foreign power engaged in the Syrian war. It signed a long-term agreement with Syria last Friday which will enable it to expand its naval base at Tartous on Syria’s Mediterranean coast and to increase its use of an airbase at Latakia.

The other big change from previous abortive peace talks is that Turkey, formerly the most important ally of the Syrian opposition, has in many respects changed sides. Up to last year, Syrian insurgents had relied on being able to move freely backwards and forwards across the Syrian-Turkish border. But Turkey now gives priority to limiting the political and military strength of the Syrian Kurds who have established a de facto state in northern Syria.

The Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek said last week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, that Turkey was retreating from its long-term policy of displacing Mr Assad. “We have to be pragmatic, realistic,” he said. “The facts on the ground have changed dramatically, and so Turkey can no longer insist on, you know, a settlement without Assad, and it’s not, you know, realistic.”

Turkey later said that Mr Simsek’s remarks had been misinterpreted, but in practice Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s lack of response while pro-government forces backed by Russia were recapturing rebel-held east Aleppo at the end of last year showed that Turkey had already changed its policy. Turkish soldiers are suffering heavy losses in a battle against Isis for the town of al-Bab, north-east of Aleppo. Russian planes have for the first time been offering air support to Turkish troops, but an Isis video showed its fighters destroying Turkish tanks and armoured vehicles.

Turkey has ensured that the Syrian Kurds, who receive strong support from US air power, are not represented at Astana, though their People’s Protection Units (YPG) are in the forefront of the fight against Isis in Syria. They supply the military punching power to Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which are advancing towards Raqqa, Isis’s de facto capital in Syria, and is only a few miles from the Tabqa Dam on the Euphrates, the largest dam in Syria.

The Syrian Kurds, who number about two million out of 16 million Syrians still in the country, are not the only important players unrepresented at today’s talks in Astana. Though 14 rebel factions are present, including the powerful Army of Islam based just east of Damascus, the two most powerful rebel armed groups are not there: Isis and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JNS) formerly known as al-Nusra and the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. JNS led the fight for east Aleppo, but was unable to put up the same sort of stiff resistance to the Syrian army and its allies as Isis has been able to do against the Iraqi security forces in Mosul.

Isis has been demonstrating that it is still a powerful military force in Syria by capturing the ancient city of Palmyra for the second time in December; it has since blown up the Roman amphitheatre. On 15 January it launched a determined assault on the Syria government enclave at Deir Ezzor, a provincial capital on the Euphrates in eastern Syria, where 93,500 people have been long besieged by Isis, depending on supplies dropped by Russian aircraft to survive.

The Isis assault partly succeeded in cutting the government-held part of Deir Ezzor in half on 17 January and captured the land on which relief supplies had previously been dropped. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that “6,000 people in east Deir Ezzor are running out of bread and food supplies.” Russian aircraft have launched heavy air strikes to hold back the Isis offensive and an elite Republican Guard unit is being helicoptered in to hold the city, which remains under threat.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Russia, Syria, Turkey 

It is an era of instability and disintegration which began in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and in Europe and the US in 2016. These regions are very different, but their recent political convulsions have basic features in common, notably a feeling shared by people from the Mississippi to the Euphrates that they are unhappy with the status quo. Likewise, political elites from Damascus to Washington DC have demonstrably underestimated their own unpopularity and the narrowness of their political base.

Inequality has increased everywhere with politically momentous consequences, a development much discussed as a reason for the populist-nationalist upsurge in western Europe and the US. But it has also had a significant destabilising impact in the wider Middle East. Impoverished Syrian villagers, who once looked to the state to provide jobs and meet their basic needs at low prices, found in the decade before 2011 that their government no longer cared what happened to them. They poured in their millions into gimcrack housing on the outskirts of Damascus and Aleppo, cities whose richer districts looked more like London or Paris. Unsurprisingly, it was these same people, formerly supporters of the ruling Baath party, who became the backbone of the popular revolt. Their grievances were not dissimilar from those of unemployed coal miners in former Democratic Party strongholds in West Virginia who voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump.

Neoliberal free market economic reforms were even more destructive of political and social stability in the Middle East and North Africa than in Europe and the US. In dictatorships or arbitrary monarchies without political accountability or rule of law, such changes further crony capitalism: access to the narrow circle wielding political power becomes the essential key to riches. Governments turn into giant looting machines under the kleptocratic guidance of a few ruling families. In Baghdad a few years ago, heavier than usual winter showers flooded the streets to the depth of a foot or more with an evil-smelling grey mixture of water and sewage. I asked an advisor to the Ministry of Water Resources why this had happened and she explained, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary, that over the previous decade the Iraqi government had spent $7 billion on a new sewage system for the capital, but either it had never existed or the sewers were too badly built to carry away rain water.

In the US, Europe and the Middle East there were many who saw themselves as the losers from globalisation, but the ideological vehicle for protest differed markedly from region to region. In Europe and the US it was right wing nationalist populism which opposes free trade, mass immigration and military intervention abroad. The latter theme is much more resonant in the US than in Europe because of Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump instinctively understood that he must keep pressing these three buttons, the importance of which Hillary Clinton and most of the Republican Party leaders, taking their cue from their donors rather than potential voters, never appreciated.

The vehicle for protest and opposition to the status quo in the Middle East and North Africa is, by way of contrast, almost entirely religious and is only seldom nationalist, the most important example being the Kurds. This is a big change from 50 years ago when revolutionaries in the region were usually nationalists or socialists, but both beliefs were discredited by corrupt and authoritarian nationalist dictators and by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Secular nationalism was in any case something of a middle class creed in the Arab world, limited in its capacity to provide the glue to hold societies together in the face of crisis. When Isis forces were advancing on Baghdad after taking Mosul in June 2014, it was a fatwa from the Iraqi Shia religious leader Ali al-Sistani that rallied the resistance. No non-religious Iraqi leader could have successfully appealed to hundreds of thousands of people to volunteer to fight to the death against Isis.

The Middle East differs also from Europe and the US because states are more fragile than they look and once destroyed prove impossible to recreate. This was a lesson that the foreign policy establishments in Washington, London and Paris failed to take on board after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, though the disastrous outcome of successful or attempted regime change has been bloodily demonstrated again and again. It was always absurdly simple-minded to blame all the troubles of Iraq, Syria and Libya on Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi, authoritarian leaders whose regimes were more the symptom than the cause of division.

But it is not only in the Middle East that divisions are deepening. Whatever happens in Britain because of the Brexit vote or in the US because of the election of Trump as president, both countries will be more divided and therefore weaker than before. Political divisions in the US are probably greater now than at any time since the American Civil War 150 years ago. Repeated calls for unity in both countries betray a deepening disunity and alarm as people sense that they are moving in the dark and old norms and landmarks are no longer visible and may no longer exist.

The mainline mass media is finding it difficult to make sense of a new world order which may or may not be emerging. Journalists are generally more rooted in the established order of things than they pretend and are shocked by radical change. Only two big newspapers – the Florida Times-Union and the Las Vegas Review-Journal endorsed Trump before the election and few of the American commentariat expected him to win, though this has not dented their confidence in their own judgement. Criticism of Trump in the media has lost all regard for truth and falsehood with the publication of patently concocted reports of his antics in Russia, but there is also genuine uncertainty about whether he will be a real force for change, be it good or ill.

Crises in different parts of the world are beginning to cross-infect and exacerbate each other. Prior to 2014 European leaders, whatever their humanitarian protestations, did not care much what happened in Iraq and Syria. But the rise of Isis, the mass influx of Syrian refugees heading for Central Europe and the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels showed that the crises in the Middle East could not be contained. They helped give a powerful impulse to the anti-immigrant authoritarian nationalist right and made them real contenders for power.

The Middle East is always a source of instability in the world and never more so than over the last six years. But winners and losers are emerging in Syria where Assad is succeeding with Russian and Iranian help, while in Iraq the Baghdad government backed by US airpower is slowly fighting its way into Mosul. Isis probably has more fight in it than its many enemies want to believe, but is surely on the road to ultimate defeat. One of the first real tests for Trump will be how far he succeeds in closing down these wars, something that is now at last becoming feasible.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Donald Trump, ISIS 

As Donald Trump prepares for his inauguration, he is struggling with opposition from the US media, intelligence agencies, government apparatus, parts of the Republican Party and a significant portion of the American population. Impressive obstacles appear to prevent him exercising arbitrary power.

He should take heart: much the same was said in Turkey of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002 when he led his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the first of four election victories. He faced an army that, through coups and the threat of coups, was the ultimate source of power in the country, and a secular establishment suspicious of his Islamist beliefs. But over the years he has outmanoeuvred or eliminated his enemies and – using a failed military coup on 15 July last year as an excuse – is suppressing and punishing all signs of dissent as “terrorism”.

As Trump enters the White House, the AKP and far right nationalist super majority in the Turkish parliament is this month stripping the assembly of its powers and transferring them wholesale to the presidency. President Erdogan will become an elected dictator able to dissolve parliament, veto legislation, decide the budget, appoint ministers who do not have to be MPs along with senior officials and heads of universities.

All power will be concentrated in Erdogan’s hands as the office of prime minister is abolished and the president, who can serve three five year terms, takes direct control of the intelligence services. He will appoint senior judges and the head of state institutions including the education system.

These far-reaching constitutional changes are reinforcing an ever-expanding purge begun after the failed military coup last year, in which more than 100,000 civil servants have been detained or dismissed. This purge is now reaching into every walk of life, from liberal journalists to businessmen who have seen $10bn in assets confiscated by the state.

The similarities between Erdogan and Trump are greater than they might seem, despite the very different political traditions in the US and Turkey.

The parallel lies primarily in the methods by which both men have gained power and seek to enhance it. They are populists and nationalists who demonise their enemies and see themselves as surrounded by conspiracies. Success does not sate their pursuit of more authority.

Hopes in the US that, after Trump’s election in November, he would shift from aggressive campaign mode to a more conciliatory approach have dissipated over the last two months. Towards the media his open hostility has escalated, as was shown by his abuse of reporters at his press conference this week.

Manic sensitivity to criticism is a hallmark of both men. In Trump’s case this is exemplified by his tweeted denunciation of critics such as Meryl Streep, while in Turkey 2,000 people have been charged with insulting the president. One man was tried for posting on Facebook three pictures of Gollum, the character in The Lord of the Rings, with similar facial features to pictures of Erdogan posted alongside. Of the 259 journalists in jail around the world, no less than 81 are in Turkey. American reporters may not yet face similar penalties, but they can expect intense pressure on the institutions for which they work to mute their criticisms.

Turkey and the US may have very different political landscapes, but there is a surprising degree of uniformity in the behaviour of Trump and Erdogan. The same is true of populist, nationalist, authoritarian leaders who are taking power in many different parts of the world from Hungary and Poland to the Philippines. Commentators have struggled for a phrase to describe this phenomenon, such as “the age of demagoguery”, but this refers only to one method – and that not the least important – by which such leaders gain power.

This type of political leadership is not new: the most compelling account of it was written 70 years ago in 1947 by the great British historian Sir Lewis Namier, in an essay reflecting on what he termed “Caesarian democracy”, which over the previous century had produced Napoleon III in France, Mussolini in Italy and Hitler in Germany. His list of the most important aspects of this toxic brand of politics is as relevant today as it was when first written, since all the items apply to Trump, Erdogan and their like.

Namier described “Caesarian democracy” as typified by “its direct appeal to the masses: demagogical slogans; disregard of legality despite a professed guardianship of law and order; contempt of political parties and the parliamentary system, of the educated classes and their values; blandishments and vague, contradictory promises to all and sundry; militarism; gigantic blatant displays and shady corruption. Panem et circenses [bread and circuses] once more – and at the end of the road, disaster.”

Disaster comes in different forms. One disability of elected dictators or strongmen is that, impelled by an exaggerated idea of their own capacity, they undertake foreign military adventures beyond their country’s strength. As an isolationist Trump might steer clear of such quagmires, but most of his senior security appointments show a far more aggressive and interventionist streak.

A strength of President Obama was that he had a realistic sense of what was attainable by the US in the Middle East without starting unwinnable wars as President George W Bush did in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the presidential election campaign, Trump showed signs of grasping – as Hillary Clinton did not – that Americans do not want to fight another ground war in the Middle East or anywhere else. But this naturally limits US influence in the world and will be at odds with Trump’s slogan about “making America great again.”

The disaster that Namier predicted was the natural end of elected dictators has already begun to happen in Turkey. The Turkish leader may have succeeded in monopolising power at home, but at the price of provoking crises and deepening divisions within Turkish society. The country is embroiled in the war in Syria, thanks to Erdogan’s ill-judged intervention there since 2011. This led to the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) establishing a de facto state in northern Syria and Isis doing the same in Syria and Iraq. At home, Erdogan restarted the war with the Turkish Kurds for electoral reasons in 2015 and the conflict is now more intractable than ever.

Every few weeks in Turkey there is another terrorist attack which is usually the work of Isis or a faction of the PKK – although the government sometimes blames atrocities on the followers of Fethullah Gulen, who are alleged to have carried out the attempted military coup last July. In addition to this, there is an escalating financial crisis, which has seen the Turkish lira lose 12 per cent of its value over the last two weeks. Foreign and domestic investment is drying up as investors become increasingly convinced that Turkey has become chronically unstable.

Erdogan and Trump have a further point in common: both have an unquenchable appetite for power and achieve it by exploiting and exacerbating divisions within their own countries.

They declare they will make their countries great again, but in practise make them weaker.

They are forever sawing through the branch on which they – and everybody else – are sitting.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Donald Trump, Erdogan, Turkey 

I read the text of the dossier on Donald Trump’s alleged dirty dealings with a scepticism that soon turned into complete disbelief. The memo has all the hallmarks of such fabrications, which is too much detail – and that detail largely uncheckable – and too many names of important people placed there to impress the reader with the sheer quantity and quality of information.

I was correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s and again during the first years in power of Vladimir Putin. Every so often, people would tell me intriguing facts about the dark doings of the Kremlin and its complicity in various crimes, such as the infamous apartment block bombings in 1999. But my heart used to sink when the informant claimed to know too much and did not see that what they were saying contained a fatal contradiction: Putin and his people were pictured as unscrupulous and violent people, but at the same time they were childishly incapable of keeping a secret damaging to themselves.

The conclusions reached in the Trump dossier similarly claim to be based on multiple sources of information where, in the nature of things, they are unlikely to exist. The dossier cites at least seven of them. “Speaking to a trusted compatriot in June 2016 sources A and B, a senior Russian Foreign Ministry and a former top level Russian intelligence officer still active inside the Kremlin respectively, [said that] the Russian authorities had been cultivating and supporting US Republican presidential candidate, Donald TRUMP, for at least five years.”

I obviously failed as a correspondent when I was in Russia because it turns out that Moscow is choc-a-bloc with fellows in senior positions willing to blow the gaff on the Kremlin’s deep laid plans. A and B, despite achieving high rank, apparently remain touchingly naive and more than willing to make revelations that, if known, would get them imprisoned or shot in short order.

Reading the papers on Trump brought back memories of talking to Iraqi defectors in the 1990s who claimed to have plenty of information about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and gossip about his family affairs. It did not take long to work out that they were making it up when they produced convincing but uncheckable details about the doings of some of the more dangerous and suspicious people in the world, with whom the defectors claimed have had frank and revealing conversations.

In its determination to damage Trump, the US press corps has been happy to suspend disbelief in this dubious document. The former member of MI6, Christopher Steele, reportedly has a high reputation in espionage circles and was stationed in Moscow 20 years ago. The New York Times is unworried by his consequent inability to travel to Moscow “to study Mr Trump’s connections there”. This is where the famed MI6 tradecraft proved so useful. Steele is said to have “hired native Russian speakers to call informants inside Russia and made surreptitious contact with his own connections in the country as well.”

The word “contact” is a useful word for journalists because it could mean a highly-placed friend or, alternatively, it might refer to some lowly freelancer who is being paid to supply information. Having Russian speakers call up Russians in Russia is an astute move, though it presupposes that FSB does not monitor foreign phone calls to people with sensitive information.

I suspect that those Iraqi defectors who used to tell me tall tales about WMD and the home life of Saddam Hussein would have dreamed up a more convincing story than this.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: American Media, Donald Trump, Russia 

As recently as two years ago, Saudi Arabia’s half century-long effort to establish itself as the main power among Arab and Islamic states looked as if it was succeeding. A US State Department paper sent by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, in 2014 and published by Wikileaks spoke of the Saudis and Qataris as rivals competing “to dominate the Sunni world”.

A year later in December 2015, the German foreign intelligence service BND was so worried about the growing influence of Saudi Arabia that it took the extraordinary step of producing a memo, saying that “the previous cautious diplomatic stance of older leading members of the royal family is being replaced by an impulsive policy of intervention”.

An embarrassed German government forced the BND to recant, but over the last year its fears about the destabilising impact of more aggressive Saudi policies were more than fulfilled. What it did not foresee was the speed with which Saudi Arabia would see its high ambitions defeated or frustrated on almost every front. But in the last year Saudi Arabia has seen its allies in Syrian civil war lose their last big urban centre in east Aleppo. Here, at least, Saudi intervention was indirect but in Yemen direct engagement of the vastly expensive Saudi military machine has failed to produce a victory. Instead of Iranian influence being curtailed by a more energetic Saudi policy, the exact opposite has happened. In the last OPEC meeting, the Saudis agreed to cut crude production while Iran raised output, something Riyadh had said it would always reject.

In the US, the final guarantor of the continued rule of the House of Saud, President Obama allowed himself to be quoted as complaining about the convention in Washington of treating Saudi Arabia as a friend and ally. At a popular level, there is growing hostility to Saudi Arabia reflected in the near unanimous vote in Congress to allow families of 9/11 victims to sue the Saudi government as bearing responsibility for the attack.

Under the mercurial guidance of Deputy Crown Prince and Defence Minister Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the most powerful figure in Saudi decision making, Saudi foreign policy became more militaristic and nationalistic after his 80 year old father Salman became king on 23 January 2015. Saudi military intervention in Yemen followed, as did increased Saudi assistance to a rebel alliance in Syria in which the most powerful fighting force was Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda.

Nothing has gone well for the Saudis in Yemen and Syria. The Saudis apparently expected the Houthis to be defeated swiftly by pro-Saudi forces, but after fifteen months of bombing they and their ally, former President Saleh, still hold the capital Sanaa and northern Yemen. The prolonged bombardment of the Arab world’s poorest country by the richest has produced a humanitarian catastrophe in which at least 60 per cent of the 25 million Yemeni population do not get enough to eat or drink.

The enhanced Saudi involvement in Syria in 2015 on the side of the insurgents had similarly damaging and unexpected consequences. The Saudis had succeeded Qatar as the main Arab supporter of the Syrian insurgency in 2013 in the belief that their Syrian allies could defeat President Bashar al-Assad or lure the US into doing so for them. In the event, greater military pressure on Assad served only to make him seek more help from Russia and Iran and precipitated Russian military intervention in September 2015 which the US was not prepared to oppose.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman is being blamed inside and outside the Kingdom for impulsive misjudgments that have brought failure or stalemate. On the economic front, his Vision 2030 project whereby Saudi Arabia is to become less wholly dependent on oil revenues and more like a normal non-oil state attracted scepticism mixed with derision from the beginning. It is doubtful if there will be much change in the patronage system whereby a high proportion of oil revenues are spent on employing Saudis regardless of their qualifications or willingness to work.

Protests by Saudi Arabia’s ten million-strong foreign work force, a third of the 30 million population, because they have not been paid can be ignored or crushed by floggings and imprisonment. The security of the Saudi state is not threatened.

The danger for the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf states is rather that hubris and wishful thinking have tempted them to try to do things well beyond their strength. None of this is new and the Gulf oil states have been increasing their power in the Arab and Muslim worlds since the nationalist regimes in Egypt, Syria and Jordan were defeated by Israel in 1967. They found – and Saudi Arabia is now finding the same thing – that militaristic nationalism works well to foster support for rulers under pressure so long as they can promise victory, but delegitimises them when they suffered defeat.

Previously Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states had worked through allies and proxies but this restraint ended with the popular uprisings of 2011. Qatar and later Saudi Arabia shifted towards supporting regime change. Revolutions transmuted into counter-revolutions with a strong sectarian cutting edge in countries like Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain where there were Sunni and non-Sunni populations.

Critics of Saudi and Qatari policies often demonise them as cunning and effective, but their most striking characteristic is their extreme messiness and ignorance of real conditions on the ground. In 2011, Qatar believed that Assad could be quickly driven from power just like Muamar Gaddafi in Libya. When this did not happen they pumped in money and weapons willy-nilly while hoping that the US could be persuaded to intervene militarily to overthrow Assad as Nato had done in Libya.

Experts on in Syria argue about the extent to which the Saudis and the Qataris knowingly funded Islamic State and various al-Qaeda clones. The answer seems to be that they did not know, and often did not care, exactly who they were funding and that, in any case, it often came from wealthy individuals and not from the Saudi government or intelligence services.

The mechanism whereby Saudi money finances extreme jihadi groups was explained in an article by Carlotta Gall in the New York Times in December on how the Saudis had bankrolled the Taliban after their defeat in 2001. The article cites the former Taliban Finance Minister, Agha Jan Motasim, as explaining in an interview how he would travel to Saudi Arabia to raise large sums of money from private individuals which was then covertly transferred to Afghanistan. Afghan officials are quoted as saying that a recent offensive by 40,000 Taliban cost foreign donors $1 billion.

The attempt by Saudi Arabia and Gulf oil states to achieve hegemony in the Arab and Sunni Muslim worlds has proved disastrous for almost everybody. The capture of east Aleppo by the Syrian Army and the likely fall of Mosul to the Iraqi Army means defeat for that the Sunni Arabs in a great swathe of territory stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean. Largely thanks to their Gulf benefactors, they are facing permanent subjection to hostile governments.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen 

The killing by an Islamic State (Isis) gunman of 39 civilians in a nightclub in Istanbul is the latest massacre in Turkey, where such slaughter is now happening every few weeks. The perpetrators may differ but the cumulative effect of these atrocities is to persuade Turks that they live in an increasingly frightening and unstable country. It is also clear that the Turkish government does not know what to do to stop the attacks.

These are likely to continue with unrelenting savagery whatever the government does, because Isis is too big and well-resourced to be eliminated. It is well rooted in Turkey and can use local militants or bring in killers from abroad, as may have happened at the Reina nightclub and was the cae in the assault on Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport earlier in the year.

As in France, Belgium or Germany, it is impossible to stop attacks when ordinary civilians are the targets and the killers are prepared to die. Their success is often blamed on “security lapses” but in practice no security will provide safety.

What makes “terrorism” in Turkey different from Europe and the Middle East is not the number of dead – more are killed by Isis in Baghdad every month – but the diversity of those carrying them out. Three weeks ago, the killing of 44 people — mostly policemen — outside a football stadium in Istanbul was claimed by the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), allegedly an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey in Ankara on 19 December was blamed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on a third group, the followers of Feithullah Gulen, who are held responsible for the failed military coup on 15 July.

All these are powerful groups with thousands of committed members inside and outside Turkey and none of them are going to go out of business soon. The government in Ankara is making the usual noises about tracking these different groups “to their lairs”. but this will be easier said than done. Both Isis and the PKK have established powerful de facto states in Syria and Iraq, something that could only have happened because of Erdogan’s ill-conceived involvement in the Syrian civil war after 2011.

Isis, which once used Turkey as a transit point and a sanctuary, now denounces it as an enemy and has calibrated its assaults to cause maximum divisions. A striking feature of Turkish reaction to the attacks over the last two years is that it has not led to national solidarity but has, on the contrary, provoked pro and anti-Erdogan forces to blame each other for creating a situation in which terrorism flourishes.

There is another menacing aspect of the attack on revellers in a nightclub: it is evidently levelled at seeking the sympathy or support of puritanical Islamists. The Salafist creed is spreading in Turkey and providing fertile soil for Isis cells established over the last few years.

Erdogan makes threats to crush Isis and the Syrian Kurds by advancing further into northern Syria. Turkish forces are close to the Isis stronghold at al-Bab, North-east of Aleppo, but are meeting stiff resistance and suffering significant casualties. For all Erdogan’s tough talk, it is not at all clear what the Turkish army and its local allies hope to achieve in northern Syria where they have few real friends and many dangerous enemies. They are being sucked into a battle which they cannot hope to win decisively.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Terrorism, Turkey 

Winners and losers are beginning to emerge in the wars that have engulfed the wider Middle East since the US and UK invaded Iraq in 2003. The most striking signs of this are the sieges of east Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, which have much in common though they were given vastly different coverage by the Western media. In both cities, Salafi-jihadi Sunni Arab insurgents were defending their last big urban strongholds against the Iraqi Army, in the case of Mosul, and the Syrian Army, in the case of east Aleppo.

The capture of east Aleppo means that President Bashar al-Assad has essentially won the war and will stay in power. The Syrian security forces advanced and the armed resistance collapsed more swiftly than had been expected. Some 8,000 to 10,000 rebel fighters, pounded by artillery and air strikes and divided among themselves, were unable to stage a last stand in the ruins of the enclave, as happened in Homs three years ago, and is happening in Mosul now.

But what gives the rebel defeat in east Aleppo its crucial significance is not so much the battle itself, but the failure of their foreign backers – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to come to their aid. Ever since 2011, the advance and retreat of government and rebel forces in Syria has been decided by the quantity of arms, ammunition and money they could extract from their outside backers. President Assad always looked to Russia, Iran and Shia paramilitaries from Lebanon and Iraq.

The decisive moment in the Syrian war came in September 2015 when the Russian air force intervened on President Assad’s side. The US did not like it, but they were not prepared to oppose it militarily. Russia may not be a global superpower, but it is seen as a superpower in the Middle East. Come the assault on east Aleppo, the rebels’ old allies in Ankara, Riyadh and Doha proved incapable or unwilling to raise the stakes unless backed by the US.

If the rebels’ traditional allies did not help them when they still held east Aleppo, it is unlikely that they will do so after they have lost it. This does not mean that the US is the fading power in the Middle East as Mr Obama’s critics claim, but the White House has been very careful not to be dragged into a war in Syria to serve somebody else’s agenda. Getting the US to overthrow Assad was at the heart of the Syrian opposition’s policy since 2011, when they believed they could orchestrate regime change in Damascus along the lines of what had just happened in Tripoli with the overthrow and killing of Muammar Gaddafi.

US policy is more proactive than it is given credit for. Obama gave priority to defeating Isis and it is unlikely that Donald Trump will change this. Isis is proving a tough opponent in Iraq and Syria and in December was able to recapture Palmyra, which the Syrian Army, strongly backed by Russia, had taken amid self-congratulatory celebrations in March. An important event that did not happen in 2016 was the defeat of Isis, whose continuing ability to set the political agenda was bloodily demonstrated when a stolen lorry mowed down people at a Christmas fair in Berlin on 18 December.

A more substantive sign of Isis’s strength is the ferocity and skill with which it has fought for Mosul. The Iraqi army and Kurdish offensive started on 17 October, and Mosul city was reached on 3 November. Since then progress has been slow and at the cost of heavy casualties. The Iraqi security forces, including the Shia paramilitaries, lost 2,000 dead in November according to the UN. Isis is using hundreds of suicide bombers, snipers and mortar teams to slow their enemy’s advance, which has so far only taken 40 per cent of east Mosul. Some of the battalions in the elite 10,000-strong “Golden Division” are reported to have suffered 50 per cent losses.

In the longer term, the Iraqi government will probably take Mosul, though by then it may not look much different from east Aleppo. One of the few items in Trump’s foreign policy that was made clear in the campaign was that there will be total priority given to eliminating Isis. This will have important consequences for the region: the great Sunni Arab revolt in Syria and Iraq aiming at regime change, which seemed to come close to success several times between 2011 and 2014, is faltering and is likely to go down to defeat. Assad and the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad are going to survive.

Russia was a big gainer in 2016 as other powers began to view it, perhaps to an exaggerated extent, as a superpower reborn. President Putin is demonised by Western governments and media, but this is a backhanded recognition of his global influence. At the same time, the US had suffered no great defeat and is repairing relations with Iran. Obama’s goals may have been modest, but, unlike those of George W Bush, they were attainable.

Syria has become the battlefield in which confrontations and rivalries that had little to do with Syria are fought out. This is why the war became so intractable. Iran has come out ahead because the Shia alliance it leads is winning in Iraq and Syria. It may look more powerful than it really is because the US destroyed the Taliban in 2001 and Saddam in 2003, the two Sunni powers that had previously hedged Iran in to the east and west. It will soon see if its more positive relationship with the US will be reversed by a Trump administration.

The Arab Spring of 2011 saw revolution, but also counter-revolution: Saudi Arabia and Qatar, followed by the oil-rich Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, sought to take over the leadership of the Arab world that had once been dominated by Egypt, Iraq and Syria. The Gulf states have proved incapable of fulfilling their new role and their various initiatives have produced or exacerbated calamitous wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia’s more proactive and aggressive policies since King Salman succeeded to the throne in January 2015 have generally ended in frustration. Saudi intervention in Yemen has not ended a stalemated war and air strikes have brought the country to the verge of famine.

The biggest loser of all in 2016, aside from the Syrian and Iraqi people, has been Turkey. It helped stoke the war in Syria only to find that the main beneficiaries were the Syrian Kurds, whose political and military leadership was drawn from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting a guerrilla war in Turkey since 1984. The country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is devoting his greatest efforts to thwarting the creation of a de facto Kurdish state in northern Syria, and the displacement of Assad has become a side issue.

Erdogan is creating a more authoritarian state as he tightens his grip on state institutions and media in the wake of the failed military coup of 15 July. He justifies his actions as reactions to crises, such as the Turkish Kurd insurgency, that are in large part his own creation. Isis, whose volunteers were once allowed to cross the Turkish-Syrian border with little trouble, are now creeping back to carry out suicide bombings in Turkey.

Donald Trump may try to change existing US policy in the Middle East, but not if he wants to carry out his domestic agenda. On the other hand, the Middle East is the region of perpetual crises which sucks in outside powers whether they like it or not. What the last five years have shown is that violence bred in the Middle East cannot be contained, and it impacts on the rest of the world in the shape of desperate migrants seeking new homes or savage terrorist attacks

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS 

The new ceasefire in Syria will not mean an end to the shooting, but it marks a crucial development in the five-and-a-half year long civil war. It will not stop the killing because the biggest armed opposition groups — Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra — are not covered by the agreement, and have a strong motive for making sure that it fails. But what is most important about the ceasefire, which began on Thursday night and appeared at first to be taking hold, is not so much what is agreed as who is doing the agreeing.

According to a draft copy of the Russian-Turkish agreement, the Turkish government “guarantees the commitment of the opposition in all the areas that the opposition controls to the ceasefire, including any type of shelling”. Russia gives similar guarantees on behalf of the Syrian government and its allies.

These are bland words, but what is important here is that Turkey is distancing itself from the armed opposition groups who have depended on its support or tolerance since the uprising against Bashar al-Assad started in 2011. Without such backing, anti-Assad forces may be unable to withstand Syrian government offensives in future. In other words, there has been a decisive shift in the balance of power inside Syria against the rebels and in favour of Assad.

This was the real message of the defeat of the rebels in east Aleppo. Their former allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and, on occasion, the US – did nothing to save them. Turkey is giving priority to fighting the Kurds at home and abroad; getting rid of Assad is well down its political agenda. In sharp contrast, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah from Lebanon did everything to ensure that the Syrian army and its allies were victorious.

But the present ceasefire is not solely the result of Syrian and regional developments. The last hope of the non-Isis opposition in Syria and its foreign allies was that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election and switch US policy to one more committed to getting rid of Assad and more hostile to Russia. Instead, they were horrified by the election of Donald Trump, a candidate even more dismissive of the non-Isis rebels, focused on destroying Isis and more favourable to a Russian alliance than President Obama.

Will the US acceptance of Russia playing a dominant role in Syria be capsized by new US sanctions against Moscow and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats? Probably not, because what Trump is proposing to do openly in Syria is not much different from what Obama was doing without publicity. It is a long time since the US was seriously interested in getting rid of Assad — it has instead been concentrating on defeating Isis. This is likely to continue under Trump and might even have done under Hillary Clinton, if she had become president. At this stage, US policy in Syria and Iraq would in any case be difficult to unglue.

But in a broader sense President Obama’s measures against Russia and Secretary of State John Kerry’s denunciation of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians will have an impact on every aspect of US foreign policy. This is less because of specific policy initiatives, which can be dismissed as the empty gestures of an expiring administration, but because Obama’s actions are evidence that political warfare in the US post-election is not going to de-escalate. There may be a shaky ceasefire in Syria, but there is none in Washington.

The Russian-US relationship in Syria will remain a mixture of rivalry and cooperation. The most important decisions here have already been taken by Obama when he did not intervene militarily against Assad in August 2013 and when he accepted Russian intervention in September 2015. But the degree of cooperation with Russia will remain in dispute between different power centres in Washington. This was already the case, which is why the Syria ceasefire negotiated by the US and Russia in September this year almost immediately collapsed in rancour. Both sides were acutely mistrustful of the other: the US claimed that Russian and Syrian planes had deliberately bombed an aid convoy bound for east Aleppo. The Russians and Syrian government suspected that US airstrikes had deliberately targeted and killed 62 Syrian soldiers near Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria.

The present Russian-Turkish ceasefire suffers from some of the weaknesses of the two previous Russian-US ones in February and September: several of the major combatants have not signed up and are unlikely to do so because the ceasefire is directed against them. But all three of the ceasefires of 2016 have been serious, even when they failed, because they have involved major players in the conflict: Russia, US, Turkey and, at one remove, Iran.

The interwoven crises in Syria are of nightmarish complexity and not all the arrows point towards peace. Turkey is backing away from supporting a war to overthrow Assad, but it is also weighing up the prospects for fighting the Syrian Kurds and eliminating their de facto state. President Bashar al-Assad has signed up to the latest ceasefire, but he makes no secret of his determination to retake all of Syria. He is probably waiting for the ceasefire to collapse because of its deficiencies before resuming the offensive.

Isis, which has been on the retreat in Syria and in Iraq, is by no means out of business. As east Aleppo was falling, its fighters recaptured Palmyra and advanced on an important Syrian airbase called T4. At the same time the Iraqi armed forces, so confident two months ago that they could retake Mosul quickly, are suffering heavy casualties in ferocious street fighting in the east of the city.

The Syrian and Iraqi wars are still full of nasty surprises for all participants, as the Trump presidency may soon find out for itself. Every crisis in the region is linked to every other. One of the biggest potential crises hanging over the Middle East is not Trump’s attitude to Russia, but to Iran. The role of Russia in Syria tends to be over-publicised and that of Iran, and its loose Shia coalition, tends to be under-reported. Up to the Russian military intervention in September 2015, it was the alliance with Iran that was most important to Assad. Iran certainly has not fought a long war in Syria, or in Iraq for that matter, to see the country impotent on the regional stage and divided up into zones of influence. Peace talks are to start soon in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, though the pro-Assad powers are not looking for power-sharing or compromise but a virtual surrender by the other side.

One does not have to spend long in Washington these days to find that, while there are many important people who detest Assad and Vladimir Putin, this feeling is far exceeded by the hatred they feel for the victors of the US presidential election. These divisions are bound to further envenom and shape policy decisions towards the crises and wars exploding in the Middle East.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Russia, Syria 

European political leaders are making the same mistake in reacting to the massacre at the Christmas fair in Berlin, in which 12 died, as they did during previous terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels. There is an over-concentration on the failings of the security services in not identifying and neutralising the Tunisian petty criminal, Anis Amri, as the threat he turned out to be. There is too little focus on bringing to an end the wars in Syria and Iraq which make this type of atrocity unstoppable.

In the aftermath of the killings the visibility of Amri, who was shot dead in Milan this morning, as a potential threat looks misleadingly obvious, and the culpability of those who did not see this appears more glaring than it really was. The number of possible suspects – suspected before they have done anything – is too great to police them effectively.

No politician or security official wishing to retain their job can tell a frightened and enraged public that it is impossible to defend them. Those in charge become an easy target for critics who opportunistically exploit terrorism to blame government incompetence or demand communal punishment of asylum seekers, immigrants or Muslims. At such times, the media is at its self-righteous worst, whipping up hysteria and portraying horrifying but small-scale incidents as if they were existential threats. This has always been true, but 24/7 news coverage makes it worse as reporters run out of things to say and lose all sense of proportion. As the old American newspaper nostrum has it: “if it bleeds, it leads.”

But in over-reacting, governments and media play into the hands of the terrorists who want to create fear and demonstrate their strength, but whose greatest gains come when they provoke an exaggerated self-destructive response. 9/11 was the most successful terrorist attack in history, not just because it destroyed the Twin Towers but because it lured the Bush administration into invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Subsequently, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, rendition, torture and “targeted killings” (otherwise known as assassination campaigns), all justified by 9/11, have acted as recruiting sergeants for al-Qaeda type organisations.

The war on terror has failed more demonstrably than most wars: al-Qaeda numbered in the hundreds in 2001, but today – along with Isis – it has tens of thousands of fighters and supporters spread across dozens of countries.

Political leaders are not blameless, but they tend to be blamed for the wrong thing. Contrary to talk about “lone wolf” terrorism, most people like Amri turn out to have had sympathetic or supportive connections. In his case, US officials say he had communicated with Isis and was in contact with a Salafi preacher. He would have needed little more than inspiration and encouragement, since driving a truck into a crowd of people celebrating Christmas requires no special expertise.

Isis remains crucial to the present wave of terrorist attacks in Europe because it provides ideological motivation and justification and can, as in Paris and Brussels, control and sustain a terrorist cell. So long as there is a well-organised de facto Isis capable of providing these things, terrorism cannot be defeated; there will always be a “breakdown in security” to be exploited.

The continuing existence of such a state is proof of the failure of US and European leadership. It is they who created the original conditions for the rise of Isis by invading Iraq in 2003. They allowed Syria to be torn apart by civil war after 2011 and believed the consequent anarchy could be confined to Iraq and Syria. It was only in 2014 and 2015 – after the creation of Isis, the flood of migrants fleeing to central Europe and the terrorist attacks in France and Belgium – that politicians and officials really took on board the potential danger.

Yet two-and-a-half years after it was first declared, Isis is still in business. Some 2,885 Iraqis were killed in November alone, most of them as a result of fighting between Isis and the Iraqi security forces. Over the last month international focus has been on the fall of east Aleppo and too little attention is given to the fact that Isis has been holding its own in Mosul and has recaptured Palmyra in Syria.

There is a dangerous disconnect in the minds of governments and news organisations between what happens in the war in Iraq and Syria and the long-term consequences this has on the streets of Europe. When the Iraqi armed forces and their Kurdish allies began on 17 October their advance on Mosul, by far the largest urban centre held by any of the Salafi-jihadi groups, it was widely believed that Isis was about to be defeated in its last lair.

It has not happened. The elite units of the Iraqi armed forces, notably the 10,000 strong “Golden Division”, have suffered as much as 50 per cent casualties. They are being ground down by skilful tactics in east Mosul whereby mobile Isis units rapidly shift their positions in built-up areas using holes cut in the walls of houses and a network of tunnels. They avoid permanent fixed positions where they can be located and targeted by artillery and the US-led air coalition. They ambush the Iraqi military forces in their vehicles as they move through narrow streets. The UN says that almost 2,000 members of the Iraqi security forces, including paramilitary Shia units and Kurdish Peshmerga units, were killed in November alone.

The offensive is largely stalled and still has not reached the main part of Mosul city on the west bank of the Tigris River. Districts in east Mosul captured weeks ago have to be captured again. The main thrust of Iraqi government forces attack on Mosul was meant to come from the south, but this front has not moved for six weeks. Isis is even reported to have sent 500 fighters from Mosul across the desert to retake Palmyra, in the first important territorial gain by Isis for 18 months.

This is not an organisation that is going out of business fast, or even at all. The failure of Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and other insurgent groups to defend east Aleppo more resolutely and successfully will probably lead to a haemorrhage of the most experienced and toughest fighters to Isis. It will have the advantage of being less dependent than the other rebel groups on outside support from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar who are close to accepting defeat in Syria. This may not save Isis in the long term because of the sheer number of its enemies, but it has shown once again that it is more resilient than the Pentagon had supposed.

There are serious consequences here for Europe: Isis can keep going for years with the low-level terrorist attacks like that which just happened in Berlin. It does not have to do much by way of exhortation or material aid to achieve this. When a terrorist incident does take place it is capable of shifting the political agenda in a country as large as Germany. Isis knows this and while it exists the terrorism will not stop.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: ISIS, Terrorism 

The assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara by a 22-year-old riot policeman underlines the degree to which Turkey is being destabilised by the hatred and violence spreading from the wars in Syria. Spectacular killings and bombings are happening every few days in which the identity, affiliations or motives of the perpetrators are often in doubt because the attacks are a reflection of the multiple crises threatening to tear Turkey apart.

The circumstances surrounding the killing of ambassador Andrey Karlov by Mevlut Mert Altintas are an example of this over-supply of possible suspects. Many Turkish observers regret that he was shot dead by the security forces soon after the assassination because his connections point in different directions and the reason for his actions may never be explained.

The international media has generally focused on his shout “Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” This fits in with a simple narrative that a lot of Turks are enraged by Russia’s support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and for his recapture of east Aleppo. Maybe one of them decided to do something about it.

But these cries were not the killer’s first words after he had fired the fatal shots and may not have been the most significant. These were in Arabic and spoke of those “who give Mohammed our allegiance for jihad,” suggesting that the speaker had moved in jihadi circles in Turkey. This argues against the killing being a spontaneous response to events in Aleppo, but does not tell one much about the gunman’s affiliations.

The best informed Turkish commentators are suggesting that these were with Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria or with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, which the Turkish government blames for the attempted coup on 15 July. On the other hand, they admit that he could have been a lone assassin who happened, from his point of view, to be in the right place at the right time.

Turkish and Russian leaders are almost over-assiduous in reassuring each other that the murder of a top Russian diplomat will not break their new-found bonds of friendship. President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made statements to that effect and, soon after the Turkish, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers met in Moscow for a pre-arranged discussion on Syria. After failing to protect Mr Karlov, Turkey will probably have to pay a price by being more accommodating to Russia in Syria.

What is not in doubt is that Turkey is becoming a more violent place and a weaker power. In the last 10 days alone the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or one of its offshoots have killed 58 people, mostly soldiers and police in carefully planned bomb attacks. The political leaders of the Kurdish minority, an estimated 14 per cent of the 80 million Turkish population, are being charged with terrorist offences for expressing even the mildest form of dissent. The same may be starting to happen to the Alevi who make up a further 15 per cent of the population. The failed military coup of 15 July provoked a purge of soldiers, civil servants, universities and media suspected of Gulenist connections with more than 100,000 sacked or suspended and 37,000 arrested. There is a continuing state of emergency and the purge has extended well beyond suspected Gulenists to include anybody critical of Mr Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

It did not have to turn out this way. As the Arab Spring so-called spread across the region six years ago, Turkey might have served as a mediator to prevent violence and contain crises. Instead, it backed the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and elsewhere and tolerated ever more extreme jihadis. Mr Erdogan was certainly not alone in thinking that there would be regime change in Damascus, but he was the one worst affected when the project failed.

Turkey is now faced with the nightmare of Kurdish control along most of its border with Syria and Iraq. In Syria, there is a de facto Kurdish state, in military alliance with the US, ruled by the Syrian branch of the PKK. The Turkish government has established a narrow anti-Kurdish cordon sanitaire further west, but it remained largely mute while the Syrian armed forces retook east Aleppo. Turkish policy in northern Syria is now directed against the Kurds and hopes of getting rid of Mr Assad have languished.

For all Mr Erdogan’s belligerent talk about military intervention in Iraq and Syria over the last six months, his actions on the ground have been cautious. The temptation may still be there to burnish his nationalist credentials and demonstrate his control over a heavily purged Turkish army by sending it deeper into Syria and even into Iraq.

But these ventures may be beyond the capacity of a Turkish state that lacks foreign allies prepared to back its policies. There are hopes in Ankara that a Donald Trump administration would be more sympathetic to the Turkish position than President Obama, but nobody knows if the new US position is going to be much different from the old. From Turkey’s point of view, Russia and Iran may not be great allies but they could be very nasty enemies.

Governments in deep trouble sometimes play the nationalist card to get themselves out of it by military intervention abroad. The result is usually disastrous, though there is popular support among Turks for action against the PKK in its foreign enclaves. A Turkish newspaper even speaks of “draining the swamp of the Qandil”, a peculiarly ill-chose metaphor referring the PKK’s bases in the Qandil mountains, one of the greatest natural fortresses on earth.

The assassination of Mr Karlov is one more symptom showing that the general crisis in the Middle East and North Africa is affecting Turkey. The forces unleashed in Syria and Iraq are exacerbating existing divisions in Turkey. Mr Erdogan is extending his authoritarian rule but he rules a weakening state unable to cope with mounting crises at home and abroad.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Russia, Terrorism, Turkey 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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