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Politicians and establishment media have greeted what they see as President Trump’s return to the norms of American foreign policy. They welcome the actual or threatened use of military force in Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea, and praise his appointment of a bevvy of generals to senior security posts. A striking feature of Trump’s first 100 days was the way in which the campaign to demonise him and his entourage as creatures of the Kremlin was suddenly switched off like a light as soon as he retreated from his earlier radicalism.

In reality, the Trump administration should be more feared as a danger to world peace at the end of his first 100 days in office than it was at the beginning. This is because Trump in the White House empowers many of those who, so far from being “a safe pair of hands”, have led the US into a series of disastrous wars in the Middle East in the post 9/11 era. There is no reason to think that they have changed their ways or learned from past mistakes.

This point is understood better in the Middle East than in it is in the US and Europe. In Baghdad, for instance, people are worried because they see the US building towards a renewed confrontation with Iran, possibly reneging on the nuclear agreement with Tehran and trying to curtail or eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq. Jim Mattis, the Secretary for Defence and former Marine general, and HR McMaster, the National Security Adviser and a general with combat experience in Iraq, are both volubly anti-Iranian. For soldiers like McMaster, the US failure in Iraq was unnecessary and self-inflicted and they intend to reverse it.

A US-Iran confrontation is bad news for Iraq because it may not mean an all-out war (though this is perfectly possible), but will be fought out on Iraqi territory by local proxies and allies. “Iraq really cannot take any more violence,” says one Iraqi commentator, “and there would be no clear winner.” He argues that the experience of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, when the Iranians lost half a million dead, is seared into the minds of Iranian leaders and they will never permit a hostile foreign state like the US to become dominant in Iraq.

Many Western commentators were jubilant over Trump’s missile strike in Syria on 7 April, interpreting it as a return to a US policy that demands Assad’s departure as part of a peace deal. But this policy has long been dead in the water because Assad has no reason to go. Trump’s Syrian policy during the presidential election campaign always made more sense than that of Hillary Clinton as the voice of the US foreign policy establishment.

The great dilemma for ordinary Syrians and the Western powers is that if Assad goes or is weakened, then the main beneficiaries will be al-Qaeda and Isis. The choice is between very bad and even worse. There have been propaganda efforts to pretend that the Syrian armed opposition is not overwhelmingly led by Salafi-Jihadi groups. But these attempts are dying away as Jabhat al-Nusr, which is prone to name changes, mops up its last opponents in northern Syria.

An influential piece of propaganda has been to claim that the Syrian government is either complicit with Isis or not doing anything to fight them. But this is contradicted by a new analysis by the monitoring group IHS Markit, revealing that over the last year Isis has fought the Syrian government forces more than any other opponent. Between 1 April 2016 and 31 March 2017, 43 per cent of Isis fighting in Syria was directed against Assad forces, 17 per cent against the US backed but Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and 40 per cent against other groups, most notably Turkish proxies reinforced by the Turkish army north of Aleppo.

“It is an inconvenient reality that any US action taken to weaken the Syrian government will inadvertently benefit the Islamic State and other Jihadi groups,” says Columb Strack, senior Middle East analyst at IHS Markit. “The Syrian government is essentially the anvil to the US-led coalition’s hammer. While the US-backed forces surround Raqqa, the Islamic State is engaged in intense fighting with the Syrian Government around Palmyra and in other parts of Homs and Deir al-Zour provinces.” If Isis was to capture Deir al-Zour, the largest city in eastern Syria, this would rejuvenate the group even if it loses Raqqa and Mosul.

The Trump administration says its priority is still to eliminate Isis and nobody openly disagrees with this. But the resurgent influence of the US foreign policy establishment along with that of Israel and the neo-cons, despite their dismal record in Iraq and Syria, is good news for Isis. Washington is seeking closer relations with Sunni states like Turkey and Saudi Arabia which have shadowy links to Salafi-jihadi groups and were at odds with President Obama.

People and policies gaining the power to make decisions in the Trump administration are the very same as those who helped turn the wider Middle East from Hindu Kush to the Sahara into an arena for endless wars. They have no idea how to end these conflicts and show little desire to do so.

There is a more general reason why Washington may in future be more inclined to employ the threat or use of military force to project its power. This is because its political, economic and ideological power is declining relative to the rest of the world. It was at its apogee between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the financial crisis of 2007-8. The rise of China and the return of Russia as an international player cramps its ability to act unilaterally. The election of Trump is evidence of a deeply divided society.

As a military power the US can still claim predominance: international derision of Trump was instantly muted when he fired 59 Tomahawk missiles into Syria, dropped a big bomb in Afghanistan and claimed, falsely as it turns out, that a US armada was sailing towards North Korea. The lesson of recent US foreign interventions is that it is difficult to turn military power into political gains, but this does not mean that Washington will not try to do so.

Trump will have learned over the last month that minimal sabre rattling abroad produces major political dividends at home. Leaders down the ages have been tempted to stage a small short successful war to rally their country behind them. Frequently they have got this absolutely and self-destructively wrong and these wars have turned out to be large, long and unsuccessful.

Trump campaigned as an isolationist, which should protect him from foreign misadventures, but he has never had many isolationists around him. The architects of America’s failed military interventions since Afghanistan are still in business. Strip Trump of his isolationism and what you have left is largely jingoistic bravado and bragging about a return of American greatness. In future crises, both these impulses will make compromise more difficult and war more likely.

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

There is nothing surprising in Boris Johnson saying that it would be difficult for the UK not to join US military action in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in response to a chemical weapons attack. Since the Second World War British governments have been trying to strengthen the UK’s status as the most important military ally of the US. But after 9/11 this obeisance became more craven and knee-jerk, despite producing failed British military ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

With the Trump administration in power in the US, these British efforts to prove to Washington the usefulness and reliability of its links to the UK have become ever more desperate. Britain’s departure from a major alliance like the EU, and likely confrontation with it over the terms of Brexit, is bound to make Britain less of a power in the world. It therefore needs to foster closer relations with Trump’s America along with an unsavoury list of countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

This may be a little more dangerous than it looks because nobody quite knows what the Trump foreign policy will amount to in Syria and Iraq. Is it, for instance, going to confront Iran and tear up the nuclear agreement with Tehran? Has it reverted to giving priority, at least nominally, to getting rid of Assad? These questions are worth thinking about, if only so as not to repeat the ill-thought-out flippancy with which British governments plunged into such dangerous places as Basra in southern Iraq in 2003 where it ended up signing a humiliating truce with the Mehdi Army Shia militia.

But the historic parallels are not exact, because the British role in the world has diminished since the high days of the Blair governments. Policy then may have been wrong-headed and frequently underestimated the military and political strength of the enemies they were about to take on. These days the gap between British threats and its ability to make them good is wider than ever and is mostly bravado.

Johnson spoke grandly of using “submarine-based cruise missiles in the Med” against Assad, but in fact Britain’s capacity to do anything militarily effective is very limited. This point was difficult to get across during the debate in 2015 about UK aircraft joining the US-led air campaign attacking Isis in Syria. Few on either side of the argument seemed to take on board that Britain simply did not have the capacity to launch more than a few symbolic strikes. The House of Commons Defence Committee eventually found out that Britain had launched just 65 airstrikes in Syria in the first nine months after the first attack.

The danger facing Britain is that so much of its foreign policy is based on wishful thinking and fantasy. This was true in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya after 2001 and is true again in Syria today. What is the purpose of bombing Assad? Is it to deter him from using chemical weapons, supposing he did, or to weaken and overthrow him? And if he is overthrown what is to prevent his regime being replaced by Isis and al-Qaeda-type groups who wholly dominate the armed opposition in Syria.

David Cameron was happy to pretend that the US and Britain would be aided by 70,000 “moderate” fighters in Syria willing to battle both Isis and Assad, though anybody with any experience on the ground in Syria knew that such a force did not exist.

The clamour over Johnson’s claim that the UK might join the US in strikes against the Syrian armed forces is based on a fiction. Both hawks and doves assume an effective British military capacity that is no longer there. Probably Johnson’s words will lead to nothing except a few headlines, but play-acting in a place as dangerous as the Middle East can be a risky business.

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

Officials at Baghdad International Airport became suspicious earlier this month when their X-ray machines could not see into 23 large bags unloaded from a Qatari plane, producing only a black image because the contents were wrapped in a special material impenetrable to detecting devices. They were further amazed when they opened the bags to discover that they contained hundreds of millions of dollars and euros in cash worth a total of $500m (£389m), says an Iraqi source.

It is now clear that the money was ransom for 24 Qataris, several of them leading members of the Qatari royal al-Thani family, and two Saudis who had been hunting with falcons with official permission in supposedly safe southern Iraq when they were kidnapped 16 months ago by a Shia militia task force. A deal to get them released has been complicated by negotiations involving Qatar and Iran as well as Shia and Sunni militias over the simultaneous evacuation of people long besieged in four towns, two Shia and two Sunni, in northern and southern Syria respectively.

The extraordinary story of the $500m ransom – perhaps the biggest ransom ever in history – and the release of the Qatari royalty is revealed in a confidential document sent by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and obtained exclusively by The Independent. In a special report dated 22 April, six days after the episode at the airport, he gives senior members of his ruling Dawa Party a detail account of actions by his government, Qatar and other players inside and outside Iraq though the precise identity of several is left vague.

Mr Abadi says that Qatar had requested the Iraqi government for permission to land an aircraft at Baghdad International Airport on 15 April on the understanding that it would take on board freed members of the kidnapped hunting party. But he says the airport officials were “surprised that there were 23 large heavy bags that appeared without prior notice or approval”. When these were put in the X-ray machine “the image appeared black”, which meant that whatever was inside was wrapped in a special impenetrable material.

Those on board the plane included the Qatari ambassador to Iraq and a special envoy from the Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, but they had not asked for the bags to be given diplomatic immunity. They apparently had not done so because they believed that the kidnappers or their emissaries had their own people at the airport who would take charge of the money.

Mr Abadi says that even before opening the bags Iraqi officials had become convinced, through overhearing the conversation of the Qataris, that they contained money. What they did not know was how much, so when they finally searched them and counted the cash they were astonished to discover that the amount totalled “hundreds of millions of dollars and euros”. By then the Iraqi government had been told, presumably by the Qataris, that the cash was a ransom payment. But its officials still confiscated it since their government had not been informed about what was going on and they were chary of seeing such a large sum paid to a militia that would inevitably be empowered by a massive cash injection. “Hundreds of millions for armed groups? Is this acceptable?” Mr Abadi asked later at a press conference.

The militia widely reported to have carried out the original kidnapping of the hunting party in Iraq’s southern Muthanna proince in December 2015 was the powerful Iranian-supported movement known as Ketaeb Hezbollah, which is distinct from Lebanese Hezbollah. But all Iraqi and Syrian militias both Shia and Sunni have links, often undeclared and unprovable but well known to most Iraqis and Syrians, to local politicians, political parties and foreign states. Sometimes, the militias are simple proxies of others but usually the relationship is more complex with a degree of mutual dependence.

Mr Abadi hints at this when he mentions in his report that, as news of the confiscation of the money at the airport spread in Baghdad, “third parties intervened strongly, some from the highest levels” and others threatened to use armed force. The Qatari envoy and the Qatari ambassador who had arrived on the plane had a bitter dispute over what had gone wrong. What is not clear is why the kidnappers released their hostages on 21 April, though they had not yet received the ransom, unless they were confident that once it was in Baghdad airport it was as good as in their hands or replacement funds had been sent by Qatar. Mr Abadi says that the Qataris had been led to believe that “the sponsors of the kidnappers” had effective control of the airport and of the security forces there.

A second strong reason for the freeing of the hostages going ahead is that their release was part of a regional deal involving Qatar, Iran, Jabhat al-Nusra, formerly the al-Qaeda representative in Syria, as well as various Shia militias. This relates to the fate of two Shia towns, Fua and Kefraya, with a combined population of 40,000, that have long been under siege by Sunni Arab militia forces including al-Nusra in Idlib province in northern Syria, and two Sunni towns, Madaya and Zabadani west of Damascus, that are besieged by pro-Syrian government forces including Lebanese Hezbollah. Under an agreement all four towns were to see simultaneous and linked evacuations as a result of stop-go negotiations that have been going on for several years. On the day of the hunters’ release last Friday, an Iraqi source told AFP “the Qataris are now in Haider al-Abadi’s office following a deal between Jabhat al-Nusra and the kidnappers.”

The release of the hostages had earlier been stalled when busses carrying Shia evacuees from Fua and Kefraya were attacked on 15 April by a suicide bomber in a vehicle, which exploded, killing 126 people, including 68 children and wounding a further 300. This was the same day that the Qatari plane landed in Baghdad. Given that all militias in Syria and Iraq are highly criminalised, the money would presumably have to be shared out among all of those involved as well as with some of their outside sponsors.

Mr Abadi is clearly angry at the way in which Iraq has been caught up in the complicated manoeuvres of foreign powers like Qatar, Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah and a variety of Iraqi and Syrian private armies. He says that “allowing [the Qataris] to deliver big money to armed groups in Iraq, and perhaps also to terrorist groups is to fuel the war.”

The affair has not ended since the Iraqi government now has half a billion dollars whom very violent paramilitary groups and their sponsors were expecting to be paid to them. These are often described as militias, though in fact they are heavily-equipped private armies who pose as community defenders, but are frequently guns-for-hire for foreign states and for their own enrichment. They will not resign themselves easily to the loss of the contents of the 23 bags confiscated at Baghdad airport.

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

The criminalisation of the mentally ill is one of the cruellest and most easily avoidable tragedies of our era. In the next few days, the state of Arkansas is intending to execute by lethal injection a 60-year-old man called Bruce Ward who showed signs of insanity at the time of his conviction for murder and was diagnosed by a court-recognised psychiatrist in 2006 as being a paranoid schizophrenic.

Ward is one of seven men facing execution in Arkansas after the first death sentence in the state since 2005 was carried out on Thursday. “He appears not to understand that he is about to die, believing instead that he is preparing for a ‘special mission’ as an evangelist,” says a report by the Harvard University Fair Punishment Project. A second man scheduled for execution is Jason McGehee who suffers from bipolar disorder and possible brain damage.

The prison systems in the US and UK have replaced psychiatric hospitals as the place where people suffering from severe mental illness are most likely to find themselves. It is a process that has been going on since the 1960s, fuelled by a desire to save money, a belief that medication would replace hospitalisation, and a liberal reaction against what was seen as unnecessary incarceration. Between 1955 and 2016, the number of state hospital beds in the US available to psychiatric patients fell by over 97 per cent from 559,000 to just 38,000. An expert noted despairingly that the biggest de facto psychiatric institutions in the US today are Los Angeles County jail, Chicago’s Cook County jail and New York’s Riker’s Island. Those who are not in prison or hospital “become violent or, more often, the victims of violence. They grow sicker and die. The personal and public costs are incalculable,” says a report by the Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia. Mentally ill people, usually poor and unemployable because of their condition, are sometimes advised that the only way they will get even the crudest treatment is by being sent to prison.

The same process is happening in Britain. One of the justifications for closing down the old asylum system was that they were too much like prisons, but the paradoxical result has been that psychiatric patients are now ending up in real prisons. The number of beds available for mental health patients in the UK has dropped by three quarters since 1986/87 to about 17,000, while the Centre for Mental Health says that 21,000 mentally ill people are imprisoned, making up a quarter of the prison population.

For many mentally ill people, the prospect of incarceration is becoming probable in an unexpected reversion to eighteenth century practice. Some are left to wander the streets but most are looked after by their families who may not have the resources to do so. Deceptively progressive sounding words, like ‘deinstitutionalisation’ in the US and ‘care in the community’ in the UK, are used to describe the ending of the vast system that once catered for psychiatric patients.

Some of these institutions were hellholes, and others became unnecessary because medication was available from the 1950s that controlled some of the worst symptoms of mental illness. But the old system did at least provide an asylum in the sense of a place of safety where people who could not look after themselves were cared for. Supposing ‘care in the community’ had been more than an attractive slogan, it might have provided something of a replacement for the old asylums, but the care it provided was always inadequate.

The reality of the new system was best described by the detective-story writer P.D. James, an administrator in the NHS in London whose husband was a long-term patient in a mental hospital. She wrote that since the 1970s community care “could be described more accurately as the absence of care in a community still largely resentful or frightened of mental illness.”

Not much has changed for the better since P.D.James was writing, as was made plain this week by the report of the Sir Thomas Winsor, the Chief Inspector of Constabulary, who complained that the police are increasingly being used as the “first resort” for people with mental health problems. He said that sometimes they ended up spending the night in police cells even though they had committed no crime because no hospital beds were available. He added that the “inadequacy” of mental health provision should “disturb everyone”.

Marjorie Wallace, the founder and chief executive of SANE, a mental health charity, explains that governments have every incentive to keep mental patients out of hospital, since “providing a single bed costs the same as ‘treating’ 44 people in the community.” She welcomed Theresa May’s intention expressed in a speech earlier this year to do something about “the burning injustice of mental health and inadequate treatment”, but says that this will remain a Utopian vision unless there is more ring-fenced money for psychiatric services which are already close to breakdown.

There is more open discussion than there used to be about mental illness, with a campaign against stigmatisation and exhortations for people to seek counselling or simply speak up about their mental troubles before they become chronic and irreversible. Prince Harry spoke movingly about the negative consequences for himself of repressing his grief over the death of his mother when he was twelve years old. Celebrities reveal their anxieties and breakdowns. Such openness is important because it reduces personal isolation and makes people feel that they will not be treated as pariahs if they speak up.

When I first began to write about schizophrenia in 2002, I found that my friends and relatives divided into those who knew nothing about mental illness and those who knew all too much about it. But the latter had often never mentioned previously that they were looking after a sister with schizophrenia or a brother who could not leave his flat without having a breakdown. One friend disclosed a terrible story of a sister-in-law who had poured petrol over herself and set it alight, suffering burns over three quarters of her body from which she took weeks to die in agony.

Openness and discussion are important, but they skirt the heart of the problem, which is that a proportion of people who are mentally ill cannot look after themselves. The severity and incurability of a mental illnesses are often underestimated and there may be exaggerated expectations of preventing their onset by early intervention. The precise causes and nature of mental illness remains very much a mystery so a large number of people are always going to become desperately ill. Schizophrenia, for instance, is to mental illness what cancer is to physical illness. When Prince Harry talked about psychological troubles, debilitating though these may be, they are still not the same as full blown psychosis or, in other words, madness.

The present system has failed and the result is the creeping criminalisation of madness. The only way to reverse this is to build a core of dedicated hospitals that will care for and protect psychiatric patients who cannot do this for themselves and are a potential danger to themselves and others.

(Reprinted from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Ideology • Tags: Mental Health 

What critics claim is the openly fraudulent Turkish referendum ends parliamentary democracy in the country and gives President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dictatorial powers. The most unexpected aspect of the poll on Sunday was not the declared outcome, but that the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) allegedly found it necessary to fix the vote quite so blatantly.

The tightness of the final outcome of the referendum – 51.4 per cent “yes” to the constitutional changes and 48.59 per cent voting “no” – shows that the “no” voters would have been in the majority in any fairly conducted election.

Late on election day the head of the Electoral Board overseeing the process decided that votes not stamped as legally valid, numbering as many as 1.5 million, would be counted as valid, quite contrary to the practice in previous Turkish elections. An even cheekier ploy was to announce that cities with large Kurdish populations in south-east Turkey, where Erdogan’s security services have brutally crushed dissent, had swung in his direction.

These possible signs of fraud come in addition to the detention of journalists, MPs and activists and the takeover or closure of almost 150 media outlets. Some 145,000 people have been detained or arrested and a further 134,000 sacked for alleged links to the attempted military coup on 16 July 2016 which is the excuse for a purge in which anybody suspected of dissent is targeted as “a terrorist”. Erdogan already holds arbitrary power under a state of emergency under which parliament, the judiciary and other power centres will be brought under the full control of “an executive presidency”.

All of this will be familiar to anybody familiar with the toxic politics of one party or monarchical states anywhere in the world. Syrian elections to this day and Iraqi elections up to 2003 invariably returned overwhelming majorities in favour of their regimes and some found it a mystery why their rulers bothered to hold a vote at all. The answer was that the vanity of autocrats is bottomless and they want to see reports in their state-controlled media that they and their policies are the people’s choice. A subtler and more menacing message is to demonstrate their ability to force their people to perform an electoral kow-tow as a demonstration of raw power and to show the world who is in charge.

In the past foreign observers have often made the mistake of thinking that Turkey was similar to Middle East states. In reality, it was a much more modern state closer in its political history to the countries of southern Europe. There were military coups and military rule, but there were also real elections and powerful parliaments. There was a sophisticated and influential media and an intellectual energy in Turkey superior to most countries in Europe. It is this that is now being eliminated as Turkey becomes yet another member of the corrupt and tawdry club of Middle East autocracies.

The manipulation of the referendum results, claimed by the opposition, is in sharp contrast to the conduct of past Turkish elections which were generally fair. Parts of the process remained legitimate, as witness the majority of “no” votes Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, the three biggest Turkish cities. This was an encouraging show of independence by voters and their representatives in the face of relentless pressure from the authorities to vote “yes”. No act of revenge is too petty or cruel: In one case an opposition MP, who denounced the “yes” voters, found that in retaliation his 88-year-old mother had been discharged from a hospital where she had been under treatment for two-and-a-half years.

Opponents of Erdogan are taking comfort in the thought that a “stolen” election will not legitimise his rule and can be challenged in the courts. But people in the business of establishing authoritarian rule and taking over the judiciary are not going to be deterred by such quibbles. In addition, the leaders of opposition political parties are incompetent, rendered ineffective by state persecution or, as in the case of the pro-Kurdish HDP, in jail awaiting long sentences.

The narrowness and dubious nature of Erdogan’s electoral “success” is unlikely to make him more conciliatory and, going by his actions after failing to get the majority he wanted in a general election in 2015, he will become even more aggressive in stamping out opposition. He is already proposing to bring back the death penalty which scarcely argues any appetite for compromise on his part. Resistance to his rule, deprived of any effective legitimate vehicle for protest through parliamentary politics, may become more violent, but he can use this to demonise all dissent as “terrorism”.

Yet it will be difficult for Erdogan to stabilise his country because he has previously specialised in provoking crises, such as the Kurdish insurgency since 2015 or Turkey’s role in the war in Syria, which supposedly necessitate a strong leader such as himself.

Authoritarian rulers often get away with such justifications for their monopoly of power, particularly if they have full control of the media in their own country. They can deal with domestic opponents by unleashing the security arm of the state against them. The real danger to their rule is when their foreign and domestic enemies combine against them.

Erdogan tried to whip up Turkish nationalist feeling during the election campaign, by carefully-staged theatrical rows with the Netherlands and Germany. But Turkey is surrounded by many actual or potential enemies – Syrian, Kurdish, Iranian, Russian – who see how easy it will be to exploit and exacerbate the country’s hatreds and deep divisions.

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

War-whoops and loud applause from foreign policy establishments and their media supporters have greeted President Trump’s missile strike in Syria, the dropping of the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan and the dispatch of a naval task force in the direction of North Korea.

This spurt in belligerence over the last week has as much to do with domestic American politics as any fundamental new development in the rest of the world. Trump needed to defuse the accusation that he was too close to President Putin and too tolerant of a Russian ally like Bashar al-Assad. The resort to military action was largely in keeping with the old Pentagon saying that “defence policy ends at the water’s edge”, meaning that it is politics inside, not outside the US, which is the real decision-maker.

Whatever Trump’s precise motives, his sudden fondness for the use of armed force shows that what President Obama criticised as “the Washington playbook” is back in business as the guide for conduct of American foreign policy. “It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment,” said Obama in an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly last year. “And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarised responses.”

The poison gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed 87 people and the retaliatory firing by the US of 59 missiles at a Syrian airbase was the occasion, but not the cause, of the volte face in Trump’s foreign policy. Previously, he had defied the conventional wisdom of the powers that be in the US and in Britain and France on a host of issues, such as relations with Russia, Syria, China, Nato and the EU.

There was something comical about the outrage expressed by self-declared experts at Trump’s new departures. Anti-Trump forces interpreted any contact, however fleeting, between any Russian and any member of the Trump team, past and present, as a sign of possible treachery in a way that would have made Senator McCarthy sigh with envy.

Simple-minded though some of Trump’s declarations might appear, others were more realistic than anything said by Hillary Clinton or Senator John McCain.

In Syria, for instance, the main problem for the US and its allies is and has long been that, though they would very much like to get rid of Assad, the only alternative appears to be anarchy or the empowerment of Isis and al-Qaeda clones. Clinton’s policy, insofar as she had one, was to pretend that there already existed, or could be created, a “third force” in Syria that would fight and ultimately replace both Isis and Assad. This is the sort of fantasy that is frequently common currency among think tanks and dedicated experts, often retired generals or diplomats working as TV commentators.

Trump’s summary of what was happening in Syria expressed during the presidential campaign was far more realistic. He said that his attitude was that “you are fighting Syria, Syria is fighting Isis, and you have to get rid of Isis. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful because of us, aligned with Syria… Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.”

There is nothing quite so frightened or ferocious in the world as an established order that is subjected to criticism questioning its core beliefs. Hence the embarrassing relief shown by so many world leaders, academic specialists and media commentators at the news that the direction and management of US foreign policy is returning to its old norms. Their optimism may be premature but they would clearly welcome a Trump administration neutered of any radical intentions.

Ignored in this is the fact that the militarised options favoured by “the Washington playbook” that Obama came to so despise have produced little but disaster in the post-9/11 era and are likely to do so again. Almost everything advocated by the Washington foreign policy establishment since the start of the war in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, Libya and Syria in 2011 and Yemen in 2015 has created or exacerbated the conflicts. Note that none of these wars have ended or show much sign of doing so.

Obama could see what was going wrong, though he generally responded with stoic resignation rather than attempting to change the course of events. But his analysis of the weaknesses of the US foreign policy establishment and its policies is full of fascinating insights relevant to the more conventional policy on which Donald Trump is now apparently embarking. Goldberg says that Obama “questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Sunni Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism. He is clearly irritated that foreign policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally.” He had similar misgivings about US links to Pakistan.

TV channels and op-ed writers who treat the expertise of Washington think tanks with such fawning reverence should reflect on the Obama White House’s view of these institutions. Goldberg, who spoke to Obama and his staff over a long period, reports: “A widely held sentiment inside the White House is that many of the most prominent foreign policy think tanks in Washington are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders. I’ve heard one administration official refer to Massachusetts Avenue, the home of many of these think tanks, as ‘Arab-occupied territory’.”

Remarkably, none of the foreign policy establishments feel that they have done anything very wrong in the Middle East since 9/11. If the governments they advise or belong to really wanted to bring to an end to the eight or more wars being waged in the great swathe of territory between Pakistan and Nigeria, they would have made more effort to do so.

The Trump foreign policy has always been a contradictory mixture of chauvinism and isolationism, of making America great again and keeping out of other people’s wars. But the isolationist element in this appears to be waning, as illustrated by the US actions in Syria, Afghanistan and towards North Korea over the past week along with the more confrontational attitude towards Russia.

This is in keeping with prescriptions of “the playbook”, but is more dangerous than before because of the Trump administration’s tendency to shoot from the hip, particularly in the direction of Iran. Relief in foreign capitals that much authority is in the hands of experienced generals may be displaced. None of these soldiers were quite as successful or farsighted in Iraq and Afghanistan as their admirers now proclaim and they have a natural tendency towards resolving problems by force.

The only real way to prevent another mass killing, such as that of the 87 people killed by chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April or the 278 killed by bombs in Mosul on 17 March, is to bring these wars to an end. Measures that do not do so, but purport to deter the perpetrators or limit the suffering, are pure hypocrisy.

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

It is very unlikely that Russia will change its support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, despite calls to do so from foreign ministers from the G7 nations gathered in Italy in the aftermath of the use of poison gas in Syria and the US missile strikes.

Russia owes its return to great power status in the eyes of much of the world to its military intervention in Syria and will not want to change its previous stance. Mr Assad’s forces, which are backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Shia militias from Iraq, are close to winning the civil war and it is doubtful if President Putin, even if he wanted to, could remove the Syrian leader from power.

Boris Johnson said that the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April had “changed everything fundamentally”. But on the contrary the balance of power on the ground in Syria is very much as it was before, and it is improbable that US policy will really switch from giving priority to eliminating Isis and al-Qaeda.

A problem in getting rid of Mr Assad as Syrian leader – as advocated in the past by the US, Britain and France – is that there is no reason to suppose that it would end the war in Syria or modify the savagery with which it is fought. Mr Assad leads one side in a civil conflict that believes that it would be slaughtered or forced to flee if the other side won. It would fight on, with or without his presence.

The other important aspect of the Syrian crisis that remains unchanged by the chemical attack is that, if Mr Assad and his forces were defeated, then the beneficiaries would be the Salafi-jihadi opposition. Isis and al-Qaeda-linked groups dominate the armed resistance to the Assad government even more firmly than they did a year ago.

The Italian foreign minister Angelino Alfano was more cautious than Mr Johnson about getting rid of Mr Assad, saying that decision should be left up to the Syrians. “I have to say, the Libya experiment did not go well,” said Mr Alfano, referring to the aftermath of the killing of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 after he was defeated by a Nato-backed opposition military campaign and the country collapsed into anarchy. “We are still paying the price.”

A further difficulty facing any insistence by G7 states that there be a political “transition” in Syria is that Russia is not Mr Assad’s only foreign ally. Prior to Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015, Iran was Mr Assad’s most important foreign supporter, sending military advisers and leading an axis of Shia powers and movements who see victory in the Syrian war as crucial to their very existence. Before the fall in the price of oil in in 2014, the Iraqi government gave significant financial assistance to Damascus.

It is still unclear how far President Trump’s policy in Syria has really changed from what it was before the 59 cruise missiles were fired last week at a Syrian airbase near the central city of Homs. Until then, Mr Trump’s policy in Syria and Iraq was much the same as that pursued by President Obama and seemed to be reaching a successful conclusion.

Isis is on the retreat in both Syria and Iraq, having lost three-quarters of the city of Mosul, its de facto Iraqi capital, in addition to other Iraqi cities which it once held. In Syria, Isis has lost most of the northern end of the Euphrates valley and is under severe pressure in Raqqa from the Syrian Democratic Forces in which the main military punching power comes from the Syrian Kurdish paramilitary forces backed by the devastating firepower of the US-led air coalition.

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

In the final days before Turks vote in a referendum on 16 April on whether or not to give President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dictatorial powers and effectively end parliamentary government, the mood in Turkey is prone to conspiracy theories and suspicion of foreign plots.

A sign of this is the reception given to a tweet that might have seemed to the sender to be exceptionally benign and non-controversial. It was sent in Turkish and English by the British ambassador to Ankara, Richard Moore, and read: “Tulips in Istanbul heralding spring. Hooray!” Accompanying it was a picture of a bank of tulips blooming outside the Dolmabahce Palace in Istanbul.

But for television sports anchor Ertem Sener the message had a much more menacing significance according to the Turkish Daily News. He tweeted to his 849,000 followers that the words were intended to show support for the failed military coup against Mr Erdogan in July 2016 and as an encouragement to “No” voters in the referendum. “This is how they are giving a message to Turkey,” said Mr Sener. “They are saying: ‘If we had prevailed [in the coup attempt] these tulips would have bloomed earlier. British dog. These tulips have been washed in [martyrs’] blood.”

Mr Moore replied dismissively to this rant, by tweeting in Turkish: “Oh dear! Who is this fool?”

But Mr Sener is not alone when it comes to hysterical denunciations. On the same day as the sports anchor was unmasking the secret agenda of the British embassy, Mr Erdogan was expressing his thoughts about Europe at a referendum rally in the west of Turkey. He said that, in the eyes of billions of people, “Europe today is no longer the centre of democracy, human rights and freedoms, but is one of oppression, violence and Nazism.”

It takes a good deal of cheek to accuse European states of lack of respect for democracy, human rights and freedoms when 134,000 people in Turkey have been sacked, including 7,300 academics and 4,300 judge and prosecutors in the nine months since the failed coup in which there is little evidence that any of them knew anything about or were otherwise involved. Some 231 journalists are in jail and 149 media outlets have been shut down, while 95,500 people have been detained and 47,600 arrested under emergency laws.

The multi-party democracy that has existed in Turkey since 1946 is being gutted by a mix of imprisonment, intimidation and interference in party affairs. Turkey has had military coups in the past, but the current restructuring and purge look far more radical. Even if the political parties were not being crippled by the assault, they would have difficulty in getting their message across. Their media outlets have been taken over or closed down and one television personality who said that he was voting “No” was immediately fired from his job.

Time allocated to the different parties on television tells the same story with Mr Erdogan and his ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) receiving 4,113 minutes of airtime up to 30 March and the CHP (Republican Peoples’ Party), which received 25 per cent of the vote in the last election, getting just 216 minutes. This is still better than the mainly Kurdish HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party), that won over 10 per cent of the vote and got just one minute of airtime. Twelve of its 59 MPs are in jail and expect long sentences.

Mr Erdogan says he would put “No” voters in a symbolic political museum, though many of them must fear a more traditional form of incarceration. But just in case there should be too many potential residents of this museum, the police and local officials have been refusing the opposition permission for rallies and ripping down flags, banners and posters advocating a “No” vote.

Despite the enormous advantages enjoyed by the “Yes” campaign, opinion polls were last week showing that voters were evenly divided or even that the “Nos” were a little ahead. But opponents of Mr Erdogan and the “executive presidency” he intends to establish are not optimistic about their chances of winning, arguing that whatever voters may do in the polling booth the outcome is likely to be a convincing majority for establishing the new authoritarian system.

This may be too cynical, but, if it is not, then Turkey will soon resemble neighbouring states in the Middle East such as Syria and Egypt where parliament and the judiciary are no more than closely monitored supporters’ clubs for the regimes. It is a depressing end to the modern Turkish secular state that Kemal Ataturk partly succeeded in establishing and which led Turkey to more closely resemble southern European states like Spain and Italy than regimes in the wider Middle East. Ten years ago, Istanbul and other Turkish cities had one of the most interesting medias in the world – not to speak of a vibrant intellectual life in general – which is now being extinguished. Any expression of critical opinion can now be interpreted as witting or unwitting support for terrorism or the attempted coup.

Of course, many leaders in the world have assumed supreme power only to find that they are at the mercy of events. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, Turkey will remain a deeply divided country along political, ethnic and sectarian lines. Mr Erdogan has for the moment crushed the Kurdish insurgency in the south east of the country, leaving many of the cities in ruins. But the Kurdish rebellion is not going to end and will look for support in the two Kurdish quasi-states across the border in Syria and Iraq. Overall, Mr Erdogan’s strategy of demonising and seeking to eliminate all his opponents as traitors and terrorists makes Turkey a much more fearful place than it has been in the past. Differences with foreign countries like Germany and the Netherlands have been exaggerated and exploited so Mr Erdogan and his party can present themselves as the heroic defenders of an embattled Turkish people.

It seems to be working, though Turkish elections have brought surprises in the past. Control of the media means that failures can be presented as successes. Overall, Operation Euphrates Shield, whereby the Turkish army entered Syria last year, has not been very successful and has now been ended. It is difficult for Turkey to exert strong influence when it is vying with powerful states like Russia and the US. But these failings and limitations will not count for much if Mr Erdogan and the AKP know that Turkish media coverage will be overwhelmingly positive.

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

President Donald Trump had little option but to order a missile strike against a Syrian airbase after holding Syria responsible for that poison gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed 80 civilians. He had criticised President Obama for being weak, slow and indecisive when facing similar challenges, so he could scarcely do nothing when President Bashar al-Assad appeared to breach the agreement in 2013 to hand over all his chemical weapons to be destroyed.

The fact that the US has taken its first direct military action against Assad is significant, not so much because it has done much damage to the Syrian armed forces, but because it may be repeated. Senior politicians and generals in the US have been calling for air strikes to take out or at last “ground” the whole Syrian air force. This option is now more on the table than it was previously, but that does not mean that it is going to happen.

The launching of 59 Tomahawk missiles that killed six people and did an unknown amount of damage at al-Shayrat airbase in Homs province in central Syria is symbolic. But it is a warning that is likely to be taken seriously in both Moscow and Damascus, because full-scale American intervention against Assad is the one thing that would deny them victory in the war.

Those who argue that the Syrian armed forces would not have done anything quite so foolish and against their own interests as to launch the strikes, probably underestimate the extent of the stupidity present in all armies. There is an old Israeli military saying, employed about a number of their commanders, which is apposite and says that the general “was so stupid that even the other generals noticed”.

Despite the air strike overnight, the Assad government and the Russians remain in a strong military position because they control all the biggest cities in Syria since the capture of east Aleppo in December. The number of Syrians still in Syria is probably about 16 million, assuming there are five or six million refugees, and of these 10 million are in areas under Assad’s control and two million apiece in zones held by Isis, the non-Isis armed opposition and the Syrian Kurds. The Syrian Kurds remain a powerful force, but the Isis and al-Qaeda armed opposition movements are crumbling.

The exiled anti-Assad opposition, who have little strength on the ground in Syria, has welcomed the US missile strike, saying it ended Assad’s “impunity”. They have called for more of the same, but if this does not happen – and it is unlikely that they will – then the political and military balance of power in Syria will not change significantly.

The war is by no means over, but it has jelled and it is getting towards the endgame. It is very unlikely that Washington will want to change its present level of engagement to the point that it became involved as it did – with disastrous results for all concerned – in Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. The White House contrasted overnight its swift and decisive response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons with the supposed feebleness of President Obama but, in reality, the policies of both administrations are much the same.

Obama was giving priority to eliminating Isis and the al-Qaeda-type movements that dominate the armed opposition and Trump is doing likewise. Obama had long ago placed getting rid of Assad on the back burner and the same is more publicly true of Trump, or so it seemed until the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province on Tuesday. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was much criticised by interventionists in Washington for saying a few days earlier that “the fate of Assad was in the hands of the Syrian people” or, in other words, the Syrian leader was going to stay.

Trump said that Tuesday’s suspected chemical gas attack had changed his attitude towards Assad and developments in Syria. But this is doubtful as American policies will probably stay the same because they are working successfully and the self-declared Islamic State is getting weaker by the day. The Iraqi armed forces have suffered heavy losses – perhaps 6,000 dead and wounded – in the battle for Mosul, but they will eventually capture it. The US-backed Syrian Kurdish advance on Isis’s de facto Syrian capital at Raqqa is likely to succeed in taking it.

The US alliance with the Syrian Kurds and the Russian alliance with Assad are defeating Isis and the al-Qaeda clones in Syria. This is different from in the past when Isis’s many enemies detested each other as much, if not more, than they hated the salafi-jihadi extremists they were supposedly fighting.

The US will probably not want to let Isis and al-Qaeda off the hook now by weakening the Syrian armed forces that remain the strongest military power in Syria. At the same time, the Americans do not intend to allow Assad to flaunt his success and, even before the chemical attack, there were reports of the US resuming aid to some opposition groups deemed to be anti-jihadi and anti-Assad.

As for the Russians, their military intervention in Syria has hitherto been highly successful because it has re-established them, at least in the Middle East, as a superpower. If they conclude that Assad was indeed behind the chemical attack – something they currently deny – then they will be infuriated that he has risked so much for so little. The Kremlin will be eager to continue to pursue parallel policies with Washington, something that dates back to 2015 when Obama decided not to oppose Putin’s military intervention on the side of Assad. This was a critical moment in the outcome of the war.

From Trump’s point of view there is a great advantage in any cross words coming from Moscow because they will counter accusations in the US that he is too close to the Russians. Democratic Party and media criticism, based on conspiracy theories claiming that Russian hackers determined the course of the election, will be deflated and Trump will have his first foreign policy success. The missile strike could do more change to the political landscape than in Syria.

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

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis and self-declared Caliph, escaped from the siege of Mosul two months ago when the road to the west was briefly re-opened by a fierce counter attack by Isis fighters, according to a senior Kurdish official.

“Isis used 17 suicide car bombs from Mosul and some of their units from Syria to clear the road leading out of Mosul for a few hours,” said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, in an interview with The Independent. He says that he and other Kurdish leaders believe that Isis would only carry out such an elaborate operation, in which they suffered heavy casualties, in order to bring al-Baghdadi to safety.

The escape took place after the fall of east Mosul and before the Iraqi security forces began their final attack on Isis-held west Mosul on 19 February. Mr Hussein says that Isis “brought 300 of their fighters from Syria and it was a very fierce fight.” The only possible escape route out of Mosul for Isis is to the west, through territory held by the Hashd al-Shaabi Shia militia who were forced to retreat, enabling Isis briefly to gain control of the road.

“I believe myself that they freed al-Baghdadi,” says Mr Hussein saying that the Isis unit from Syria returned there immediately and monitoring of Isis radio traffic showed that they were jubilant that they had carried out a successful operation. Al-Baghdadi, who became leader of Isis in 2010, is the movement’s iconic leader who led it to a series of spectacular victories including the seizure of Mosul in 2014. His death or capture would be a further body blow to the movement, which has lost much of its territory in Iraq and Syria.

Mr Hussein said that he expected Isis to survive after the fall of Mosul, where its fighters still hold the Old City which the UN says has a population of 400,000. “But I don’t think they will survive as a state,” he said. He expects Isis will revert to being a guerrilla-type organisation carrying out terror attacks but without its previous resources. Despite its current implosion, it still has sanctuaries in different parts of Iraq and Syria where it can try to regenerate itself.

A serious problem in Iraq is that there is no political plan for sharing power or running the regained territory after the fall of Mosul and the defeat of Isis. Mr Hussein said that Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is expected in Irbil on Tuesday to see the status of the anti-Isis campaign for himself. Mr Kushner arrived in Baghdad on Monday, accompanying the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford, and saw the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

When Mr Kushner does arrive in Irbil, he will find a situation which is bewilderingly complex even by the standards of Iraqi politics, and poses questions that may prove insoluble. When the offensive against Isis started on 17 October last year, it followed a military agreement between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the Iraqi central government whereby the Kurdish Peshmerga would play only a limited military role, taking part of the Nineveh Plain east of Mosul. But there was no political agreement on how long term security can be provided to the mosaic of different parties, militias, sects and ethnic communities living in and around Mosul.

Mr Hussein says that there was no political plan for post-Isis Mosul put forward last year, because it would have raised divisive issues that might have prevented a military campaign against Isis. It is unclear who will hold power in Mosul in the long term or what will happen to Kurds and Christians who were forced out of the city. A short drive across the Nineveh Plain reveals political and sectarian rivalries and hatreds stopping any return to normality. There is not much sign of the Iraqi army and most checkpoints are manned by the Hashd al-Shaabi, often recruited from the Kurdish speaking Shia minority known as the Shabak.

The Sunni Arab population of Mosul has been traumatised by the six month siege, which is far from ended and is destroying a large part of the city. Mr Hussein says that it was a serious mistake in the planning of the Mosul operation to believe that Isis would be defeated quickly or the population might rise up against the jihadis. “There was an idea in Baghdad that there would be an uprising against Isis,” says Mr Hussein. The optimistic conviction that this would happen, and over-confidence about how quickly Isis could be defeated, led to the government telling people in the city to stay in their houses, a miscalculation that is leading to heavy civilian loss of life.

Mr Hussein does not doubt that Isis will eventually be defeated in Mosul. But, unless there is an agreement about what to do next, he says the “logic of war” will take over and everybody will hold onto territory they have already taken. Driving around government-held east Mosul there is a noticeable lack of local police or any other security forces to replace elite military detachments. like the Counter-Terrorism Service, that have moved into west Mosul to fight Isis there.

In the plains around Mosul, insecurity is even greater with many towns and villages, recaptured from Isis last year, still deserted. The Christian town of Qaraqosh, for example, retaken from Isis at that time, remains empty and without electricity or fresh water. Yohanna Towaya, a local Christian leader, says the community “will not go back unless they are guaranteed protection by the KRG and the Baghdad government.” He says that “two or three Christian families are leaving KRG each day for Lebanon or Australia.” Everywhere there are predatory militias on the payroll of different masters staking their claim to power, money or land , something which exacerbates the deep distrust felt by all communities in northern Iraq towards each other.

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