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In the immediate aftermath of what police are describing as a terrorist incident in and around Parliament, at least three facts stand out suggesting that the attacks are similar to those carried out over the last two years by Isis supporters in Paris, Nice, Brussels and Berlin. .

The similarities with the events today are in the targets of the attacks which in all cases were ordinary civilians, but the means of trying to cause mass casualties differs. In Nice, Berlin and London no fire arms were used by the attackers, while in Paris and Brussels there was a coordinated assault in which guns and explosives were employed.

In Nice on 14 July 2016 a truck killed 86 people and injured hundreds, driving at speed through crowds watching a firework display on the Promenade des Anglais until the driver was shot dead by police. Isis claimed that he was answering their “calls to target citizens of coalition nations that fight the Islamic State”. Britain is a member of the coalition with aircraft and special forces troops in action against Isis in Iraq and Syria.

Isis claimed responsibility for a lorry which drove into a Christmas market in 19 December 2016, killing 12 and injuring dozens. As with Nice, this appears to resemble what happened on Westminster Bridge, going by first reports.

The overall location of the attacks today may be significant and would fit in with the way that Isis normally operates when carrying out such atrocities. This is to act in the centre of capital cities or in large provincial ones in order to ensure 24/7 publicity and maximise the effectiveness of the incident as a demonstration of Isis’s continuing reach and ability to project fear far from its rapidly shrinking core areas in Syria and Iraq.

Isis is sophisticated enough to know that such attacks carried out in news hubs like London or Paris will serve their purposes best. In cases of attack with a knife or a vehicle then Isis would not need to provide more than motivation, though individuals seldom turn out to have acted alone. It may no longer have cells in Europe capable of obtaining fire arms or making bombs.

It could be that the attacks were carried out by another group, the most obvious candidate being one of the affiliates of al-Qaeda in Yemen. Syria or elsewhere. On 11 March 2017 Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda, carried out two bombing attacks in Damascus, killing 59 people, mostly Shia pilgrims from Iraq visiting holy sites. But the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda, while carrying out suicide bombings against targets in Syria, has previously avoided doing so abroad in order to make itself more diplomatically palatable than Isis.

Could the attacks on Westminster Bridge and in Parliament be linked to the siege of Mosul where Isis has lost the east of the city and half the west since an Iraqi army offensive started on 17 October? Isis has traditionally tried to offset defeats on the battlefield, by terrorist attacks aimed civilians that show they are still very much a force to be feared. The same logic led to the ritual decapitation, drowning and burning of foreign journalists and domestic opponents.

The most likely speculation at this early stage is that the attacks in London are inspired or directed by Isis, but there is too little evidence to make the connection with any certainty. Isis often holds off claiming such atrocities for several days to increase speculation and intensify terror.

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

Brexit is English nationalism made flesh, but the English underrate its destructive potential as a form of communal identity. Concepts like “nationalism” and “self-determination” have traditionally been seen as something that happens to foreigners. An English failing today is an inability to recognise the egocentricity implicit in such nationalism and the extent to which it alienates and invites confrontation with other nations in the British Isles and beyond.

A classic example of this blindness to the consequences of this new type of nationalism came this week when Theresa May denounced Nicola Sturgeon for “playing politics with the future of our country” in demanding a second referendum on Scottish independence. This immediately begs the question about the nature and location of this “country” to which such uncritical loyalty is due. If the state in question is the UK, then why do the advocates of Brexit ignore the opposition – and take for granted the compliance – of Scotland and Northern Ireland in leaving the EU?

It is worth recalling the degree to which British politics was divided and poisoned by fierce disputes over Irish independence for the whole of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, right up to the moment that Ireland achieved self-determination in 1921. What used to be called “the Irish Question” has now been reborn as an all-consuming issue by “the Scottish Question” and, whatever the timing and outcome of a second Scottish referendum, it is not going to go away. Supposing that Theresa May really believes, as her patronising rejection of another poll in Scotland might suggest, that “the Scottish Question” can be indefinitely delayed, then she will be joining a long dismal list of British leaders down the centuries who made the same mistake about Ireland.

English politicians have frequently had a tin ear when it comes to other people’s nationalism, imagining that it can be satisfied by material concessions or rebutted by arguments about independence inflicting unacceptable economic damage. English people often have an equally muddled or myopic vision of their own nationalism, using the terms “English” and “British” as if they were synonymous or marked a distinction of no great account. They therefore do not see how their nationalism has changed significantly in the last few years and is making the continuation of the UK less and less likely. The transformation is also obscured because the ingredients of nationalist identity are in any case hazy since a successful nationalist movement becomes the vehicle for all sorts of grievances and protests.

British nationalism was in the past more fluid than Irish or continental nationalism because it did not face such intense pressures. It needed to be adaptable and inclusive enough to meet the needs of empire and a post-imperial world. It was primarily territorial within the island of Britain, rather than ethnic, religious or linguistic, and was so successful and self-confident that it did not closely define exactly what made somebody British. Strident assertions by Ulster Protestants about their “Britishness” sounded foreign and rather embarrassing to people in the rest of the UK.

The new English nationalism that surfaced so strongly during the Brexit campaign is, ironically, much closer to continental traditions of nationalism. It is much more ethnically and culturally exclusive than the English/British tradition, which developed when British politics stabilised after prolonged turmoil and civil war at the beginning of the eighteenth century.

What makes the new English nationalism so dangerous post-Brexit is that it is deeply felt but incoherent and comes with little self-knowledge. It is more dangerous than the elephant in the room, whose presence nobody will acknowledge, because in this case the elephant is scarcely aware of its own bulk and impact upon others. As a system of beliefs the new nationalism is much more appropriate to an English nation state than to a more diverse United Kingdom. Yet there is genuine bafflement among English people when the Scots apply the same arguments as Brexiters used to justify leaving the EU to justify Scottish independence. It takes a good deal of cheek for Theresa May, as she initiates Britain’s withdrawal from the EU – the consequences of which even its protagonists admit nobody knows – to accuse Nicola Sturgeon of setting “Scotland on a course for more uncertainty and division, creating huge uncertainty.”

It should be quickly said that there is nothing wrong with there being an English nation state. The left tends to denigrate or suspect nationalism as a mask for racism or, at best, a diversion from more important social and political issues. It can be both, but nationalism has also been the essential glue for progressive and liberal movements since the American War of Independence. If it has fallen into the hands of the xenophobic right in England and the US in recent years, that is the fault of those who saw it as illegitimate, obsolete and irrelevant in a globalising world.

Because the new nationalism sees itself in a vague way as seeking to return to a mythical England, which seems to have had its terminal date in about 1960, it is not good at seeing that its project is new and different from what went before. The old British state, as it developed from the end of the seventeenth century, was known – and often detested by other states – for its acute sense of its own interests. The new English nation state stretching from the Channel to the Tweed seems to have little idea of its own strengths and weaknesses and will be much less capable of charting an independent course in the world, whatever its pretensions “to be taking back control”.

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One of the curiosities of the Brexit referendum was that, while the Leaves frequently beat the patriotic drum and spoke of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 and the Battle of Britain in 1940, they showed little interest in or knowledge of history. Before the eighteenth century, English governments spent much of their energies and resources fighting the Scots, Irish and Welsh. In the years before Agincourt, Henry V learned to be a soldier suppressing Welsh uprisings. Scottish and Irish rebellions played a central role in precipitating and determining the outcome of the English Civil War. An end to this disunity through repression or conciliation launched Britain as a great power. A return to instability in relations between the nations living in the British Isles will have the opposite effect.

Britain is already weaker as a state than it was two years ago because its government is wholly preoccupied with Brexit and the prospect of Scottish secession from the UK. All other pressing problems facing the country must wait, possibly for decades, until these issues are dealt with. The break-up of Britain is not something that may or may not happen as the result of a second referendum, but is already upon us. The confrontation between English and Scottish nationalism is not going to moderate or evaporate. The one certainty is that “The Scottish Question” and Brexit have come together to destabilise Britain for years to come.

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

The Trump administration is making its first radical policy change in the Middle East by escalating American involvement in the civil war in Yemen. Wrecked by years of conflict, the unfortunate country will supposedly be the place where the US will start to confront and roll back Iranian influence in the region as a whole.

To this end, the US is to increase military support for Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and local Yemeni allies in a bid to overthrow the Houthis – a militarised Shia movement strong in northern Yemen – fighting alongside much of the Yemeni army, which remains loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

If ever there was a complicated and unwinnable war to keep out of, it is this one.

Despite Saudi allegations, there is little evidence that the Houthis get more than rhetorical support from Iran and this is far less than Saudi Arabia gets from the US and Britain. There is no sign that the Saudi-led air bombardment, which has been going on for two years, will decisively break the military stalemate. All that Saudi intervention has achieved so far is to bring Yemen close to all out famine. “Seven million Yemenis are ever closer to starvation,” said Jamie McGoldrick, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Yemen in an appeal for more aid this week.

But at the very moment that the UN is warning about the calamity facing Yemen, the US State Department has given permission for a resumption of the supply of precision guided weapons to Saudi Arabia. These sales were suspended last October by President Obama after Saudi aircraft bombed a funeral in the capital Sana’a, killing more than 100 mourners. Ever since Saudi Arabia started its bombing campaign in March 2015, the US has been refuelling its aircraft and has advisors in the Saudi operational headquarters. For the weapons sales to go ahead all that is needed is White House permission.

A bizarre element in Trump’s decision to take the offensive against Iran in Yemen is that the Iranians provide very little financial and military aid to the Houthis. Saudi propaganda, often echoed by the international media, speaks of the Houthis as “Iran-backed”, but Yemen is almost entirely cut off from the outside world by Saudi ground, air and sea forces.

Even food imports, on which Yemenis are wholly reliant, are more and more difficult to bring in through the half-wrecked port of Hodeida on the western coast.

The resumption of the supply of precision-guided munitions is not the first indication that the Trump administration sees Yemen as a good place to put into operation a more hawkish strategy in the region. On 29 January, days after he took office, Trump sent some 30 members of US Navy Seal Team 6, backed by helicopters, to attack an impoverished village called al Ghayil in al-Bayda province in southern Yemen. The purpose of the raid, according to the Pentagon, was intelligence-gathering – though it may well have been a failed attempt to kill or capture Qassim al Rimi, the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Whatever the aim of the attack, it swiftly turned into a bloody fiasco, with as many 29 civilians in al Ghayil killed along with one Seal, Chief Petty Officer William Owens. The Pentagon’s explanation of what happened sounds very much like similar attempts to explain away civilian killed and wounded over the past half century in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. The head of the US military’s central command, General Joseph Votel, told a Senate hearing that between four and 12 civilians might have died in the raid, adding that an “exhaustive after-action review” had not found incompetence, poor decision making or bad judgement.

For its part, the Trump administration tried to shut down any investigation into what had really happened at al Ghayil by saying that an inquiry would be an affront into the legacy of the fallen Seal, William Owens. This stance was swiftly criticised by the father of the dead man, Bill Owens, who said the government owed his son an inquiry. “Don’t hide behind my son’s death to prevent an investigation,” he said.

In the event, the White House and the Pentagon have so far hidden fairly successfully from any real examination of the destruction of this remote Yemeni village, perhaps calculating that no independent journalist could make the dangerous journey to the site of the attack. But a lengthy on-the-spot report by Iona Craig, entitled “Death in al Ghayil” and appearing in the online investigative magazine The Intercept, convincingly rebuts the official version of events, little of which appears to be true.

Craig quotes surviving villagers as saying that the Seal team came under heavy fire from the beginning and attack helicopters were sent in. She writes: “In what seemed to be blind panic, the gunships bombarded the entire village, striking more than a dozen buildings, razing stone dwellings where families slept, and wiping out more than 120 goats, sheep and donkeys.” At least six women and 10 children were killed in their houses as projectiles tore through the straw and timber roofs or were mown down as they ran into the open.

The Trump administration says this was a “highly successful operation” and there had been an assault on a fortified compound – except that there are no such compounds in the village. Trump claimed that a “large amount of vital intelligence” had been obtained and the Pentagon released video footage seized in al Ghayil only to later admit that the footage had been around for 10 years and contained nothing new.

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Ironically, the villagers who fought back against the Seal team actually belonged to the forces opposing the Houthis and the pro-Saleh forces and, on the night of the assault, “local armed tribesmen assumed the Houthis had arrived to capture their village”. It was only when they saw coloured laser lights coming from the weapons of the attacking force that they realised that they were fighting Americans. As the Seals retreated, with one dead and two seriously wounded, the MV-22 Osprey that was to extract them crash-landed and had to be destroyed by other US aircraft.

The Trump administration’s first counter-terrorism operation was a failure for the US and much worse for the Yemeni villagers who are dead, wounded, homeless and have seen their livestock, on which they depended for their livelihoods, all killed. But when Senator John McCain, who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the raid has been a failure he was promptly denounced by Trump who said that Owens “had died on a winning mission” and to debate its outcome would “only embolden the enemy”.

International media coverage tends to focus on the wars in Syria and Iraq, but in those countries Trump and the Pentagon are largely following the policies and plans of Obama.

It is in Yemen that new policies are beginning to emerge as the Trump administration carries out its first counter-terrorism operation against al Qaeda – if that was what it was – leading to the slaughter of civilians and a botched cover-up. Yemen may soon join Afghanistan and Iraq as wars in which the US wishes it had never got involved.

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

Winners and losers are emerging in what may be the final phase of the Syrian civil war as anti-Isis forces prepare for an attack aimed at capturing Raqqa, the de facto Isis capital in Syria. Kurdish-led Syrian fighters say they have seized part of the road south of Raqqa, cutting Isis off from other its territory further east.

Isis is confronting an array of enemies approaching Raqqa, but these are divided, with competing agendas and ambitions. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), whose main fighting force is the Syrian Kurdish Popular Mobilisation Units (YPG), backed by the devastating firepower of the US-led air coalition, are now getting close to Raqqa and are likely to receive additional US support. The US currently has 500 Special Operations troops in north-east Syria and may move in American-operated heavy artillery to reinforce the attack on Raqqa.

This is bad news for Turkey, whose military foray into northern Syria called Operation Euphrates Shield began last August, as it is being squeezed from all sides. In particular, an elaborate political and military chess game is being played around the town of Manbij, captured by the SDF last year, with the aim of excluding Turkey, which had declared it to be its next target. The Turkish priority in Syria is to contain and if possible reduce or eliminate the power of Syrian Kurds whom Ankara sees as supporting the Kurdish insurrection in Turkey.

Turkey will find it very difficult to attack Manbij, which the SDF captured from Isis after ferocious fighting last year, because the SDF said on Sunday that it is now under the protection of the US-led coalition. Earlier last week, the Manbij Military Council appeared to have outmanoeuvred the Turks by handing over villages west of Manbij – beginning to come under attack from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia backed by Turkey – to the Syrian Army which is advancing from the south with Russian air support.

syria-war-map.jpg

Isis looks as if it is coming under more military pressure than it can withstand as it faces attacks on every side though its fighters continue to resist strongly. It finally lost al-Bab, a strategically placed town north east of Aleppo, to the Turks on 23 February, but only after it had killed some 60 Turkish soldiers along with 469 FSA dead and 1,700 wounded. The long defence of al-Bab by Isis turned what had been planned as a show of strength by Turkey in northern Syria into a demonstration of weakness. The Turkish-backed FSA was unable to advance without direct support from the Turkish military and the fall of the town was so long delayed that Turkey could play only a limited role in the final battle for nearby east Aleppo in December.

Turkey had hoped that President Trump might abandon President Obama’s close cooperation with the Syrian Kurds as America’s main ally on the ground in Syria. There is little sign of this happening so far and pictures of US military vehicles entering Manbij from the east underline American determination to fend off a Turkish-Kurdish clash which would delay the offensive against Raqqa. The US has shown no objection to Syrian Army and Russian “humanitarian convoys” driving into Manbij from the south.

There are other signs that the traditional mix of rivalry and cooperation that has characterised relations between the US and Russia in Syria is shifting towards greater cooperation. The Syrian Army, with support from Russia and Hezbollah, recaptured Palmyra from Isis last Thursday with help from American air strikes. Previously, US aircraft had generally not attacked Isis when it was fighting Syrian government forces. Seizing Palmyra for the second time three months ago was the only significant advance by Isis since 2015.

Turkey could strike at Raqqa from the north, hoping to slice through Syrian Kurdish territory, but this would be a very risky venture likely to be resisted by YPG and opposed by the US and Russia. Otherwise, Turkey and the two other big supporters of the Syrian armed opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are seeing their influence over events in Syria swiftly diminish. Iran and Hezbollah of Lebanon, who were the main foreign support of President Bashar al-Assad before 2015, do not have quite same leverage in Damascus since Russian military intervention in that year.

American and British ambitions to see Mr Assad removed from power have been effectively abandoned and the Syrian government shows every sign of wanting to retake all of Syria. If Isis loses Mosul and Raqqa in the next few months there will be little left of the Caliphate declared in June 2014 as a territorial entity.

The remaining big issue still undecided in both Syria and Iraq is the future relations between the central governments in Baghdad and Damascus and their Kurdish minorities. These have become much more important as allies of the US than they were before the rise of Isis. But they may not be able to hold on to their expanded territories in post-Isis times – and in opposition to reinvigorated Syrian and Iraqi governments.

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

After Isis captured Mosul in June 2014, people in Baghdad waited in terror to see if its fighters would go on to storm the capital. There was very little to stop them as the Iraqi army in northern Iraq broke up and fled south. Many government ministers and MPs rushed to the airport and took refuge in Jordan. When an American military delegation arrived to review the defences of Baghdad, they were told by a senior Iraq official “to look to see which ministers had put fresh sandbags around their ministries. Those that have done so like myself will stay and fight; where you see old sandbags it means the minister doesn’t care because he is intending to run.”

Two and a half years later, it is Isis fighters who are battling street-to-street to hold onto west Mosul, their last big stronghold in Iraq, in the face of multiple assaults by a revived Iraqi army backed by US airpower. The last road out of the city to the west was cut by Iraqi government forces on 1 March and they have also captured one of the half-ruined bridges over the Tigris River that bisects Mosul, which they are planning to repair using US-supplied pontoons. Iraqi military units backed by some 50 US airstrikes a day are getting close to the complex of buildings that used to house the government headquarters in the centre of the city.

Iraqi officials and officers announce only advances and victories, reports that often turn out to be premature or untrue. But there is no doubt that the Iraqi security services are winning the struggle for Mosul, though fighting could go on for a long time amid the close-packed buildings and narrow, twisting alleyways. Already shelling and airstrikes are causing heavy casualties among families sheltering in cellars or beneath the stairs in their houses.

The battle will probably continue for a long time, but the capture of Mosul looks inevitable and will be a calamitous defeat for Isis. When its few thousand fighters seized the city and defeated a government garrison of 60,000 in 2014, it portrayed its victory as a sign that God was on its side. But the same logic works in reverse and today all Isis can offer its followers is a series of hard-fought defeats and withdrawals.

The crucial question concerns whether or not the fall of Mosul means the effective end of the caliphate declared by its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The caliphate’s significance was that at one time it ruled territory with a population of five or six million people in Iraq and Syria, where it sought to establish a truly Islamic State. It is this dream – or nightmare – that is now being shattered. Isis may still control some territory in Iraq and more in Syria, but it has nothing like the human and material resources it enjoyed at the height of its power when it controlled territory stretching from the Iranian border almost to the Mediterranean coast.

Isis still has some strengths, including experienced and skilful commanders leading a core of fanatical fighters numbering as many as 4,000 in west Mosul alone. They have already killed 500 and wounded 3,000 of the Iraqi security service’s best soldiers in the struggle for east Mosul, which was meant to last a few weeks and instead took three months. There is a no reason the same thing should not happen in the west of the city where the warren of streets gives the defence an advantage. Foreign fighters know they cannot blend into the population and escape, so they have no choice but to fight to the death.

Other factors work in favour of Isis: it is fighting a vast array of enemies forced into an unwilling coalition against Isis because they fear and hate it just a little bit more than they hate and fear each other. As Isis weakens and becomes less of a threat, the edgy détente between different anti-Isis forces, such as the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurds, will begin to fray. People in Baghdad recall that the Kurds took advantage of the defeat of the Iraqi army in 2014 to grab extensive lands long disputed between themselves and the Arabs. Once freed of the menace of Isis, non-Kurdish Iraqis will want these territories back.

In Syria, there is an even more complicated three-cornered fight between the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Kurds and Turkey for the areas from which Isis is retreating. Turkish troops and their local proxies have just taken al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo, from Isis after a hard fought siege, and have started attacking the town of Manbij nearby, which was taken from Isis after a long battle late last year by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Mobilisation Units (YPG) and its Arab allies. As Isis is driven out, the YPG and Turkish-backed forces are left facing each other in what might be the beginning of a new Kurdish-Turkish war waged across northern Syria.

Even those familiar with the complexities and shifting alliances of the Syrian civil war are baffled by the likely outcome as the different players in Syria position themselves to take advantage of a likely attack on Raqqa, the de facto Syrian capital of Isis. Will the US continue to use the devastating firepower of its air force to support a YPG-led ground offensive? Or could the US administration under Trump take a more pro-Turkish stance and, if it did so, would the Syrian Kurds look for an alternative military alliance with Assad and his Russian backers?

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The answers to such questions will decide if we are really getting towards the end of the terrible wars in Iraq and Syria that have ravaged the region since 2003 or if we are only seeing an end to a phase in the conflict. In Iraq, the government has survived the disasters of 2014 and is about to defeat Isis in Mosul, though the Baghdad administration remains spectacularly corrupt, sectarian and dysfunctional. Assad in Syria has already won a crucial victory by capturing east Aleppo, the last big urban stronghold of the armed opposition in Syria, and is evidently intending to win back the whole country.

These successes give an exaggerated idea of the real power of the Iraqi army, which owes the reversal in the military tide to the support of foreign powers and, above all, to US airpower. The same is true of the Syrian army in its reliance on Russia and Russian airstrikes. So far, the mix of cooperation and rivalry between the US and Russia in Syria that developed under President Obama has not changed much under Donald Trump.

Yet the war is not quite over. Isis has a tradition of responding to defeats on the battlefield by carrying out terrorist attacks in the region, Europe, Turkey or other parts of the world. Some spectacular atrocities would enable it once again to dominate the news agenda and show it is not beaten.

Isis may want to test the Trump administration and see if it can provoke it into an overreaction by some act of terror, just as al-Qaeda was able to do at the time of 9/11.

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

Iraqi military forces are advancing towards the main complex of government buildings in the centre of west Mosul, indicating that Isis is losing control of its last big urban stronghold in Iraq.

“The provincial council and the governorate building are within the firing range of the rapid response forces,” said an officer with the elite interior ministry units.

The Iraqi government offensive is evidently making ground faster than had been expected against some 4,000 Isis fighters, besieged along with 750,000 civilians in the half of Mosul city to the west of the Tigris river. The aim of the multiple attack against this enclave is to keep Isis under pressure on all fronts so it will not have enough men to hold back the Iraqi security forces that far outnumber it. Isis is making very effective use of a mix of snipers, suicide bombers, mortars, bombs, booby traps and drones.

Iraqi forces say they have seized both ends of one of the five bridges spanning the Tigris, which have all been broken by US air strikes and Isis demolition teams, but could be made passable again by using pontoon bridging equipment supplied by the US.

People inside the city are running out of food, and there are reports that the old Sarj-Khana market has been burned by Isis. Militants are setting fire to private houses in order to create a smoke screen that will hide its fighters from the US-led air strikes which are clearing the way for ground troops.

The UN humanitarian aid office said on Tuesday that 8,000 people have fled to government-controlled areas south of Mosul since the latest Iraq military offensive began on 19 February and they “are often exhausted and dehydrated”.

The main weight of the attack so far is coming from the south and has captured the airport along with several districts of Mosul. Isis is likely to make its main stand in the close-packed residential housing and narrow alleys of the old part of Mosul. It took Iraqi security forces three months from 17 October last year to capture east Mosul during which they lost 500 dead and 3,000 wounded according to General Joseph Votel of the US Central Command.

Many of the most effective Iraqi units reportedly suffered over 30 per cent losses, though the Iraqi government in Baghdad refuses to disclose military and civilian casualties.

The recapture of Mosul by the Iraqi armed forces, which lost the city to a much smaller number of Isis fighters in June 2014, will be a crushing blow to the Caliphate that was declared at that time and at its height controlled territory the size of Great Britain. Its astonishing victories against superior forces in Iraq and Syria two-an-a-half years ago were portrayed by Isis as proof that it had divine assistance. Its string of defeats and shrinking territory since 2015 have had the contrary effect of persuading many Sunni Arab tribes and communities that the self-declared Caliphate is coming to an end.

The real situation in front line positions in and around west Mosul is unclear because the Iraqi government reports only successes and never mentions setbacks or defeats. They sometimes announce the capture of districts and towns long before government troops have reached them. The blog Musings on Iraq , which has published a detailed daily account of the 132-day campaign to take Mosul, complains that “the Iraqi forces’ (ISF) statements either by officers or even official ones have become so unreliable that they cannot be trusted unless pictures are posted on social media or a western reporter confirms them”.

Nevertheless, Iraqi forces do appear to have improved their tactics since the grinding street-to-street fighting in east Mosul, which they had expected to seize much more quickly. One significant development is that US soldiers advising and calling in air strikes are now positioned closer to the front line than they were last year. Aside from closer involvement of US troops in the fighting, the Trump administration has so far changed very little in operations against Isis initiated under President Obama.

General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, says that since August 2014 the US-led Coalition “has conducted more than 10,000 air strikes against Isis targets in Iraq and trained and equipped more than 70,000 Iraqi forces to support Iraqi operations”.

Isis is under pressure on all fronts, including Syria, where it has lost the town of al-Bab to Turkish forces and Arab auxiliaries under their control. Isis commanders must also prepare for an assault on its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main fighting force is drawn from the Syrian Kurds operating in cooperation with the US air force and US special forces on the ground. Isis is beset on every side but is likely to fight to the end, which may be a long time coming.

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

Boris Yeltsin was making a presidential visit to Washington in 1995 when he was found one night outside the White House dressed only in his underpants. He explained in a slurred voice to US secret service agents that he was trying to hail a cab so he could go and buy a pizza. The following night he was discovered by a guard, who thought he was an intruder, wandering drunkenly around the basement of his official residence.

Drunk or sober, Yeltsin and his escapades became the living symbol for the world, not just of the collapse of the Soviet Union but of a dysfunctional administration in the Kremlin and the decline of Russia as a great power. It was impossible to take seriously a state whose leader was visibly inebriated much of the time and in which policy was determined by a coterie of corrupt family members and officials serving at Yeltsin’s whim.

Donald Trump is often compared to Vladimir Putin by the media which detects ominous parallels between the two men as populist nationalist leaders. The message is that Trump with his furious attacks on the media would like to emulate Putin’s authoritarianism. There is some truth in this, but when it comes to the effect on US status and power in the world, the similarities are greater between Trump and Yeltsin than between Trump and Putin.

Trump does not drink alcohol, but his incoherent verbal onslaughts on Australia, Mexico and Sweden since he became President are strongly reminiscent of Yeltsin’s embarrassing antics. Both men won power as demagogic anti-establishment leaders who won elections by promising to reform and clear out corruption in the existing system. The result in Russia was calamitous national decline and the same thing could now happen in America.

It will be difficult for the US to remain a super-power under a leader who is an international figure of fun and is often visibly detached from reality. His battle cry of “Fake News” simply means an inability to cope with criticism or accept facts or views that contradict his own. World leaders who have met him say they are astonished by his ignorance of events at home and abroad.

This cannot go on very long without sizeably diminishing American global influence as its judgement and actions become so unpredictable. Over the last three quarters of a century, countries of all political hues – dictatorships and democracies, republics and monarchies – have wanted to be an ally of the US because it was the most powerful player in world affairs.

It will remain so but the degree and nature of its primacy is changing significantly for four reasons. The US has a leader who appears unhinged to an extent not true of any of his predecessors. Secondly, political combat in the US has reached an all-absorbing ferocity not seen since the 1850s. This does not mean that the last act of this crisis will be a civil war, but American society is more divided today than at any time since the conflict between North and South. From the moment Trump took office he has shown no inclination towards compromise and his divisiveness inevitably makes America becomes a lesser power than it was.

The US is in a much stronger position today than the Soviet Union in 1991, but aspects of the two situations are the same. The Soviet Union was past its peak when it dissolved, but the US is weaker than it was fifteen years ago. Despite its vastly expensive armed forces, the US has failed to win wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or to obtain regime change in Syria. In all three wars, it made serious mistakes and suffered important setbacks. Barack Obama had an acute sense of just how far US military strength could be turned into political gains without stumbling into unwinnable wars in the Middle East and beyond. Contrary to Trump’s jibes about Obama doing disastrous deals with Iran and others, the last president kept out of the Syrian civil war, which would have been as draining as Afghanistan or Iraq, and gave priority to the campaign to eliminate Isis.

As presidential candidate Trump presented himself as an isolationist, claiming to have opposed the wars in Iraq and Libya. He had taken on board, as Hillary Clinton had not, that the American public does not want to fight another ground war in the Middle East. But Trump’s appointment of two senior generals – James Mattis as Defence Secretary and HR McMaster as National Security Adviser – tells a different and more belligerent story. Already, there are steps being taken to create a Sunni Arab coalition, led by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies and in cooperation with Israel, to confront Iran.

The Trump administration does not have a coherent foreign policy and will probably go along at first with many of the policies already in place. The dangerous moment will come later when it has to devise its own responses to new events, such as terrorist attacks by Isis, and its real capacity becomes apparent. It looks all too likely that a president who has such a ludicrously warped picture of life in Sweden will fail to grapple successfully with complex crises in Yemen, Syria or Iraq.

The election of Trump brings with it another negative but less tangible outcome that is already eating away at American primacy: the US will be not only divided but unable to focus on for the foreseeable future on anything other than the consequences of Trumpism. When US politicians, officials and media look at Russia, China, Ukraine, Iran, Israel or anywhere else in the world from Sweden to Australia, they will view them through a prism distorted by his preconceptions and fantasies.

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The US is not alone in this. The debilitating result of a single factor marginalising other crucial issues has become all too clear in Britain since the Brexit vote. Tony Blair said in his recent speech that “this is a government for Brexit, of Brexit and dominated by Brexit. It is a mono-purpose political entity.” Aside from this single-minded focus, nothing else really matters, not the health service, the economy, technology, education, investment or crime. “Governments’ priorities are not really defined by white papers or words, but by the intensity of focus,” explained Blair. “This government has bandwidth for only one thing: Brexit. It is the waking thought, the daily grind, the meditation before sleep and the stuff of its dreams; or nightmares.”

In the US, Trump is a similarly obsessive concern. Once it was smaller European countries like Ireland and Poland that were derided for an exaggerated and unhealthy preoccupation with their own problems. A Polish joke from the 1920s relates how an Englishman, a Frenchman and a Pole competed to write the best essay on the elephant. The Englishman described “elephant hunting in India”, the French wrote about “the elephant in love” and the Pole produced a lengthy paper on “the elephant and the Polish Question”. These days the Englishman would undoubtedly write about “the elephant and Brexit” and an American, if he was allowed to enter the competition, would write interminably about “the elephant and Donald Trump”.

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

Iraqi government forces have started their offensive aimed at capturing the western half of Mosul, Isis’s last big urban stronghold in the country. There are an estimated 4,000 jihadi fighters defending the close-packed houses and narrow alleyways in the half of the city west of the Tigris River, which is inhabited by some 650,000 civilians.

Iraqi paramilitary federal police and interior ministry units are advancing from the south of Mosul with the initial aim of seizing the city airport. But the heaviest fighting is likely to come when the soldiers get into built up areas where the militant group has been digging tunnels and holes cut through the walls of houses so they can conduct a mobile defence away from artillery fire and airstrikes.

The fighting could be as fierce as anything seen in the Iraq war, which has been ongoing since the US invasion of 2003 overthrew Saddam Hussein. The operation is being largely planned by the US, which has 6,000 soldiers in Iraq and which leads a coalition that has carried out more than 10,000 airstrikes and trained and equipped 70,000 Iraqi soldiers. “Mosul would be a tough fight for any army in the world,” said Lt Gen Stephen Townsend, the commander of the coalition, in a statement.

The struggle for Mosul is the climactic battle in the bid by the Iraqi government and its foreign allies to destroy Isis, which established its self-declared caliphate in June 2014 when a few thousand fighters unexpectedly captured Mosul from a 60,000-strong government garrison. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Isis leader and self-appointed caliph, is in west Mosul according to Hoshyar Zebari, the former Iraqi finance and foreign minister, speaking to The Independent in an interview last week. This gives Isis an extra reason to hold the city to the last man.

The Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of the operation early on Sunday morning, but intense fighting has yet to start as Iraqi forces advance through empty outlying villages. Going by the well-planned resistance put up by Isis in east Mosul over the last three months since the first offensive began on 17 October, casualties on all sides are likely to be heavy.

Isis depended on mobile squads of snipers, booby traps and over 600 suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives to slow the advance of the counter terrorism service and other elite formation, some of which suffered 50 per cent casualties during a snail’s pace advance. By the end of 2016, the Iraqi Kurdish health ministry was complaining that its hospitals were full to overflowing with 13,500 wounded soldiers and civilians from the fighting in Mosul.

Though Baghdad announced that it had seized all of east Mosul, its grip on captured districts appears shaky as Isis sleeper cells carry out assassinations and bombings. Two suicide bombers, who emerged today, blew themselves up, killing three soldiers and two civilians and injuring many more. Last week a restaurant owner in east Mosul, who had reopened his business and was serving soldiers, was killed by another bomber. The Iraqi army is short of well-trained troops and their dispatch to the front line means that districts already taken are vulnerable to infiltration by Isis.

While Mr Abadi called on the Iraqi forces to be careful of the human rights of civilians in Mosul, videos are emerging of young men being beaten and summarily executed in places already taken by Iraqi troops. Despite frequent claims that it is liberating Mosul, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government is effectively assaulting the last great Sunni Arab city in Iraq. Away from the television cameras Iraqi soldiers often suspect civilians in Mosul of having been much more cooperative with Isis since 2014 than they now claim.

Civilians in Mosul have no alternative but to cooperate with warring armies that are destroying their city. Iraqi planes have dropped millions of leaflets on west Mosul telling Isis fighters to surrender, and people to stay in their houses and to display white sheets to show they are not resisting. But since Isis kills anybody who shows signs of surrendering, this tactic is unlikely to be very effective.

Government military commanders say they have learned from their experiences in east Mosul and will try to advance on west Mosul from all sides in order to spread out the Isis defenders. They will also be strongly supported by US artillery and airstrikes seeking to eliminate Isis strongpoints. The government says that it is seeking to minimise civilian casualties, but it is impossible to know from a distance how many families have taken refuge in the interior of buildings or in cellars. If, as seems inevitable, government forces use greater firepower than before to capture west Mosul, then civilian loss of life and material destruction will be greater than in the east.

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

Self-absorbed and irrational Donald Trump may well be, but on Thursday he held what was probably the most interesting and entertaining White House press conference ever. These are usually grimly ritualistic events in which select members of the media establishment, who have often come to see themselves as part of the permanent government of the US, ask predictable questions and get equally predictable replies.

The conventions of democracy are preserved but nobody is much the wiser, and the general tone is one of fawning credulity towards whatever line the administration is adopting. That this has long been the case was shown in the fascinating book about the press coverage of the 1972 presidential campaign, The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse, which notes that negative popular perceptions of the media truckling to power is largely true of the White House correspondents, though not of other reporters.

For now, Trump reminds one more of a theatrical populist like Silvio Berlusconi than anything resembling a proto-fascist or authoritarian demagogue like Benito Mussolini. This perception may change as he secures his grip on the levers of power as he promises to do, blaming leaks from the US intelligence services on holdovers from the Obama administration.

But the lesson to be drawn from the history of all populist authoritarian regimes is that there is always a wide gap between what they promise and what they accomplish. As this gap becomes wider, the regime responds by concealing or lying about it through control or closure of the media. This was the trajectory in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is holding a referendum in April which will establish an all-powerful presidency. In the run-up to the vote the Turkish media simply reports military failures in Syria as brilliant successes and even mildly critical tweets can lead to the tweeter being sacked or imprisoned. Press freedoms may never be extinguished to the same degree in the US, but then many Turkish journalists did not foresee what was going to happen to them.

At present, this is a golden era in American journalism, because established media outlets such as CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post find themselves under unprecedented and open attacks from the powers that be. Richard Nixon may have felt persecuted by press and television, but he never counter-attacked with the same vigour and venom as Trump. Discussions on CNN, which used to be notoriously soporific, have suddenly become lively and intelligent, and the same is true of the rest of the mainline media.

This radicalisation of the establishment media may not last and is accompanied by a significant rearrangement of history. Lying by the Trump administration is presented as wholly unprecedented, but what has really changed is the position of the media itself, forgetful of its past complicity in claiming that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or that war in Libya would bring peace and democracy to that country.

“Fake news” and “false facts” are the battle cries in this ferocious struggle for power in Washington in which each side takes a high moral tone, while trying to land any low blow they think they can get away with. Trump, accused of everything aside from grave-robbing, is said to have been aided by the dark hand of Vladimir Putin in winning the election, in a manner that is far beyond Russian capabilities. The Kremlin is credited with demonic foresight whereby it sponsored Trump as a candidate in the presidential election long before any American politician or commentator thought he had a chance.

A bizarre feature of the present confrontation is that the Democrats and liberals have relaunched McCarthyism, something they would have decried as a toxic episode in American political history until a few months ago. Just as Senator Joe McCarthy claimed in 1950 to have a list of communist infiltrators in the State Department, so any contact between a Trump supporter or official and a Russian is now being reported as suspicious and potentially treacherous. It is difficult to see where Trump is wrong when he tweeted that “the Democrats had to come up with a story as to why they lost the election, and so badly, so they made up a story – RUSSIA. Fake news!”

Trump has a point, but he is also entirely hypocritical because he himself probably won the election because of the spurious significance given to Hillary Clinton’s private emails and her supposed responsibility for the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi by jihadis. Paradoxically, she was blamed for one of the few bad things that happened in Libya that was not her fault. In recent decades it has been the Republicans who have made a speciality in promoting trivial offences or no offence at all into major issues in order to discredit political opponents. In the 1990s they succeeded in smearing the Clintons by elevating a minor unsuccessful real estate deal into the Whitewater scandal. Probably the biggest Democratic Party “false fact” success came in the Presidential election in 1960 when Kennedy claimed that the Republicans had allowed “a missile gap” to develop between the US and the Soviet Union, though he knew this was untrue since he had been officially briefed that the US had far more missiles than the Russians.

The phrases “fake news” and “false facts” give a misleading impression of what really happens in the course of political combat now or in the past. A direct disprovable lie, like Kennedy on the missile gap, is unusual. More frequent is systematic exaggeration of the gravity of real events such as Clinton’s emails or Trump’s Russian connections.

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Sound advice on this was given 300 years ago in Dr John Arbuthnot’s wonderful treatise on “the Art of Political Lying”, published in 1712, which warns that once a false fact or lie is lodged in the public mind, it may be impossible to persuade people that it is untrue except by another lie. He says, as an example, that if there is a rumour that the pretender to the British throne in exile in France has come to London, do not contradict it by saying he was never in England. Rather “you must prove by eyewitnesses that he came no farther than Greenwich, but then went back again.” He warns against spreading lies about a political leader which are directly contrary to their known character and previous behaviour. Better to give credibility to a lie by keeping within realms of credibility, by blackening the name of a prince known to be merciful “that he has pardoned a criminal who did not deserve it.”

Arbuthnot assumes that political parties lie as a matter of course, and that the only way for the public to limit the power of governments is to lie as much as they do. He says that, just as ministers use political lying to support their power, “it is but reasonable that the people should employ the same weapon to defend themselves, and pull them down.”

Could this be the fate of Trump? He became president because false facts fatally damaged Hillary Clinton – and now the same thing is happening to him.

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

The Iraqi armed forces will eventually capture west Mosul, which is still held by Isis fighters, but the city itself will be destroyed in the fighting, a senior Iraqi politician has told The Independent in an interview.

Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish leader who until last year was the Iraqi finance minister and prior to that the country’s long-serving foreign minister, says that Isis will fight to the last man in the densely-packed urban districts it still holds.

“I think west Mosul will be destroyed,” says Mr Zebari, pointing to the high level of destruction in east Mosul just taken by government forces. He explains that Isis is able to put up such stiff resistance by skilful tactics using networks of tunnels, sniper teams and suicide bombers in great numbers. He adds that no date has yet been set for the resumption of the Iraqi government offensive into west Mosul, but he expects the fighting to be even tougher than before.

A further reason for fanatical resistance by Isis is that Mr Zebari is certain that the Isis leader and self-declared Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still in west Mosul and reports of him being killed or injured in an air strike elsewhere in Iraq are incorrect. He says that Isis sector commanders in the city are experienced professional soldiers, all of whom were once officers in Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard or Special Forces, and will fight effectively to defend their remaining stronghold in the larger part of the city that is to the west of the Tigris River.

The elite Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Services, led by the 10,000-strong Golden Division, had expected to take the whole of Mosul, once a city of two million people, by the end of 2016. But ferocious resistance by some 3,000 Isis fighters on the east bank of the Tigris meant that this part of the city was only captured after three months of fighting with heavy loss of life on all sides, especially among civilians.

Mr Zebari, who originally comes from Mosul, describes the present situation in the city as “horrible” and “a shambles”, even in those parts of it that Iraqi government forces have captured, though not fully occupied and secured. “There are Isis ‘sleeper cells’ with maybe 16 to 24 men in each district which come out of hiding and kill people who are cooperating with the government,” he says. “They target restaurants which have reopened and serve soldiers.” There has also been a complete failure by the government to restore basic services like electricity and water supply.

Asked about casualties, Mr Zebari said those on the Iraqi security forces side had been heavy, but the government in Baghdad has refused to produce exact figures. US reports say that some units of the Golden Division, which is a sort of highly trained army within the army, had suffered up to 50 per cent losses. He discounts official Iraqi claims that 16,000 Isis fighters had been killed, saying that the real figure was probably between 1,500 and 2,000 Isis dead out of a total of 6,000 in Mosul. He thought that they had brought in reinforcements and there were probably 4,000 Isis fighters left who would defend west Mosul, which is home to about 750,000 people.

This account is borne out by other reports from in and around east Mosul where this week two suicide bombers attacked a market, killing twelve and wounding 33 people. Mortars and rockets fired by Isis are still exploding and the main water system was destroyed in fighting in January. Pictures show cavernous craters reportedly caused by bombs dropped by US Air Force B-52s to aid the Iraqi army advance. People who fled Mosul at the height of the fighting and have been returning to it are often leaving again. The UN says that it is worried by arbitrary arrests of displaced people as possible Isis sympathisers and records that on 8 and 9 February some 1,442 came back to east Mosul, but 791 left for displacement camps.

Despite the Iraqi security forces’ focus on weeding out Isis supporters and “sleeper cells”, Mr Zebari says that this does not provide real security because travel documents can be bought from corrupt security officers for 25,000 Iraqi dinars (£17). Drivers on Iraqi roads have confirmed to The Independent that the main concern of checkpoints is not security, but to extract bribes from passing vehicles. This would explain how Isis suicide bombers driving vehicles packed with explosives are able to pass through multiple checkpoints before detonating explosives in civilian areas in Baghdad or other cities.

Mr Zebari notes that rivalry between the US and Iran in Iraq is increasing under President Donald Trump, with the latter slow to call the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and making US help conditional on a reduction in Iranian influence. During the US presidential election campaign, Mr Trump claimed that Iran had taken over Iraq. There is also growing friction between the different Shia parties and movements that Mr Zebari says makes “inter-Shia fighting imminent”.

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Mr Zebari’s prediction that Mosul will be destroyed as a city by the next wave of fighting is all too likely because the last three years in Iraq and Syria have seen deepening sectarian and ethnic hatred. This was greatly fostered by Isis massacres, primarily of Shia and Yazidis but also of its other opponents. There is an ominous precedent for what may happen in Mosul because other Sunni cities and towns up and down Iraq have been wrecked or rendered uninhabitable by government counter-offensives since 2014. Some 70 per cent of the houses in Ramadi, the capital of the overwhelmingly Sunni Anbar province, are in ruins or are badly damaged. Even where many houses are still standing, as in Fallujah 40 miles west of Baghdad, the people who come back to them have to live without electricity, water, jobs or medical care. In practice, the Shia-dominated Iraqi government wants to break the back of Sunni resistance to its rule so it will never be capable of rising again.

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