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 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

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During the bombing of Baghdad in January 1991 I went with other journalists on a government-organised trip to what they claimed was the remains of a baby milk plant at Abu Ghraib which the US had just destroyed, saying that it was really a biological warfare facility. Walking around the wreckage, I found a smashed-up desk with letters showing that the plant had indeed been producing “infant formula” milk powder. It had not been very successful in doing so, since much of the correspondence was about its financial and production problems and how they might best be resolved. It did not seem likely that the Iraqi government could have fabricated this evidence, though it was conceivable that in some part of the plant, which I did see, they might have been manufacturing biological weapons (BW).

I was visiting a lot of bombed-out buildings at the beginning of the US-led air campaign and I did not at first realise that “the Abu Ghraib baby milk factory” would become such an issue. I was more impressed at the time by the sight of a Cruise missile passing quite slowly overhead looking like a large black torpedo. But, within hours of leaving Abu Ghraib, the true purpose of the plant there had become a topic of furious controversy. The CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, who was on the trip, had reported that “whatever else it did, it [the plant] produced infant formula”. He saw a lot of powdered milk and, contrary to the Pentagon claim that the place was guarded like a fortress, we could only see one guard at the gate. Arnett did not deny the US government version that the place was a BW plant, but he did not confirm it either. He simply reported that “it looked innocent enough from what we could see”.

Even such mild dissent from the official US version of the bombing turned out to be unacceptable, producing an explosion of rage in Washington. Colin Powell, the US chief of staff, expressed certainty that the Abu Ghraib plant had manufactured BW. The US air force claimed that it had multiple sources of information proving the same thing.

Arnett was vilified as an Iraqi government stooge by the US government. “This is not a case of taking on the media,” said the White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. “It’s a case of correcting a public disclosure that is erroneous, that is false, that hurts our government, and that plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein.” US news outlets, none of which had correspondents in Baghdad, vigorously toed the official line. Newsweek derided Iraq’s “ham-handed attempt to depict a bombed-out biological weapons plant near Baghdad as a baby-formula factory”.

It took years for the official version of the bombing to fall apart. Even though I had been in the plant soon after it was destroyed, I could not prove that it did not produce biological weapons, though it seemed to me highly unlikely. Media interest waned rapidly: the best study I could find about how the destruction of the milk factory was spun by official PR is a piece by Mark Crispin Miller, from which the quotes above are taken, published in 2003.

Proof came slowly, long after public interest had waned. A Congressional report in 1993 on US intelligence successes and failures in the Gulf War revealed the shaky reasoning behind the US air force decision to bomb the site. It turned out that “mottled camouflage” had been used on the roofs of two known BW facilities. The report said: “at the same time, the same camouflage scheme was applied to the roof of the milk plant”. This was enough for the US Air Force to list it as a target. Confident official claims about multiple sources of intelligence turned out to be untrue. One has to burrow deep into an unclassified CIA paper on Iraq’s BW programme, to find a sentence admitting that another plant, which was the real centre of Saddam Hussein’s BW effort, was unknown to the US-led coalition and “therefore was not attacked during the war, unlike the Abu Ghurayb (sic) Infant Formula Plant (the Baby Milk Factory) that the Coalition destroyed by bombing in the mistaken belief that it was a key BW facility”.

The story of the Abu Ghraib baby milk factory is worth retelling because it underlines – in the wake of the US, British and French air strikes on alleged Syrian BW sites on 14 April – the need for permanent scepticism towards claims by governments that they know what is happening on the ground in Syria or anywhere else.

But government duplicity is scarcely new and denunciations of it may obscure an even greater danger. Look again at the attack on Peter Arnett’s story by the White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater who was wrong – and Arnett was right – in saying that it contained “a disclosure that is erroneous, that is false”. But he adds correctly that it was a disclosure “that hurts our government and plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein”.

So it was in a minor way and this brings us to a toxic attitude towards those who question the official version of events increasingly common in Britain and the US. It is overwhelming freedom of speech in Hungary and Poland and has already triumphed in Turkey and Egypt. In all cases, opinions diverging from those of the powers-that-be are branded as disloyal and unpatriotic and “false facts” are being spread by “useful idiots”, to use two ghastly clichés much in use. Marginalisation of dissenting is followed by its criminalisation: Turkey once had a flourishing free press but now any criticism of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan or words or actions of which he disapproves can be labelled as “terrorism” and punished accordingly.

There is much tut-tutting in Britain by the commentariat about the spread of authoritarianism in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, but less so about the growing limitation on what can be freely expressed at home. Increasingly, anything less than full endorsement of the government line about the poisoning of the Skripals in Salisbury or the suspected gas attack on civilians in Douma in Syria is characterised as support for Putin or Assad.

A telling instance of this new authoritarianism is the denunciations of a party of Christian clergy and peers who have been visiting Syria to meet church dignitaries and government officials. This is an understandable mission for concerned British Christians because Christians in Syria can do with all the solidarity they can get as they are forced to flee or are kidnapped or murdered by Isis, al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. Like many Syrians, they see their choice as not being between good and bad but between bad and worse. They generally prefer survival under Assad to likely extinction under his enemies.

Visiting embattled members of the depleted Christian community in Syria is a good thing to do. And, yes, it could be said that the presence of British Christians in Damascus is very marginally helpful to Assad, in much the same way that Peter Arnett’s truthful report on the baby milk in Abu Ghraib must have pleased Saddam Hussein. The Foreign Office said the Christians’ visit was “not helpful” but then helping the British state should not be their prime concern.

None of the arguments currently being used in Britain and the US to smear those sceptical of the governmental and media consensus are new. The Bolsheviks used to denounce people who said or did things they did not like as “objectively” being fascists or counter-revolutionaries. When those being denounced, often only a preliminary to being shot, replied that they were no such thing, the Bolsheviks would reply: “tell us who supports you and we will tell you who you are”. In other words, the only thing that matters is what side you are on.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Russia, Syria 
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The Yazidis, who were recently the target of massacre, rape and sex slavery by Isis, are now facing forcible conversion to Islam under the threat of death from Turkish-backed forces which captured the Kurdish enclave of Afrin on 18 March. Islamist rebel fighters, who are allied to Turkey and have occupied Yazidi villages in the area, have destroyed the temples and places of worship the Kurdish-speaking non-Islamic sect according to local people.

Shekh Qamber, a 63-year-old Syrian Kurdish Yazidi farmer who fled his town of Qastel Jindo in Afrin, described in an exclusive interview with The Independent what happened to Yazidis who refused to leave their homes. He said that some were forcibly brought to a mosque by Islamists to be converted, while others, including a 70-year-old man he knew, were being lured there by offers of food and medical attention.

Even the place names of Yazidi villages are being changed. Mr Qamber recounted a conversation he had with an Islamist militant who had arrested and questioned him near the town of Azaz when he was trying to escape. He was asked by his interrogator where he was from and he replied that he was from Qastel Jindo. The Islamist, whose groups often describe themselves as belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA), said: “it’s no more Qastel Jindo. It’s al-Quds now. We will give it the name of Palestine’s capital. These areas were occupied by the infidels and now it is [going] back to their original owners and original names … We came here to regain our lands and behead you.”

Mr Qamber recalls that he replied to this threat to kill him by a saying that what would happen would be by god’s will. His interrogator responded: “Shut up! You are infidel. Do you really know or believe in god?” Mr Qamber said that believed in one god and soon after he was released because, he believes, he was old and sick. He eventually found his way to the main Kurdish enclave in northeast Syria which is protected by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) backed by US airpower and 2,000 US troops.

There are frequent reports that many of the Sunni Arab fighters in the FSA, who are under the command of the Turkish military, are former members of Isis and al-Qaeda. In their own videos, they describe the existing Kurdish population as infidels, using slogans and phrases normally associated with al-Qaeda.

Mr Qamder says that the majority of the people in villages around Qastel Jindo, which fell early during the Turkish invasion that began on 20 January, are Yazidis. He says that some villagers fled, but others risked staying because they did not want to lose their houses and lands. These who remained were later “taken to the mosque and given lessons in Islamic prayer”.

In addition, there were “there were temples and Yazidi worship houses, but all have been blown up and destroyed by the militants after they entered the village”. The Yazidi religion is a mixture of beliefs drawn from Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Mr Qamber said he had spoken to people from the Yazidi villages of Burj Abdalo, Basufane, Faqira, and Tirende and they all said “the militants are teaching the Yazidis the Islamic prayer”.

Mr Qander puts part of the blame for what is happening on his own people who returned to their homes after the initial advance of Turkish army and its Arab auxiliaries. He says that they ought to have known better, going by the terrible fate of the Yazidis in Sinjar [Shingal in Kurdish] in northern Iraq in August 2014 when it was overrun by Isis. He asks: “Why don’t they learn from the experiences of Shingal where the Yazidi women were taken as sex slaves and our dignity and honour taken?

Asked about the present concerns of the Yazidis, many of whom are in refugee camps in northern Syria and Iraq, Mr Qamber said that after the defeat of Isis as a territorial entity they “expected that the Turks will attack us, either directly as they did before in Turkey in the 1970s, or indirectly using their allied Islamist Jihadi groups, like Daesh [Isis] or other groups like the so-called Free Syrian Army”.

Only a limited amount information has been coming out about conditions in Afrin since it was finally captured by the Turkish army and its Arab allies on 18 March. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in its latest report on the Afrin crisis on 16 April says that 137,000 individuals have been displaced from Afrin, while 150,000 remain there, of whom 50,000 are in Afrin City and 100,000 in the countryside. It says that the movement of people is heavily restricted and many who want to return to their homes are not being allowed to pass through checkpoints, which, though it does not identify who is in charge of them, must mean the Turkish military or their Arab auxiliaries inside Afrin, since they are the only authority there.

Reports by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), widely seen as neutral or pro-opposition, citing multiple sources in Afrin confirm Mr Qamber’s account of sectarian and ethnic cleansing by the Turkish army and its Arab allies. It says that it has reliable information that ‘the resettlement of the displaced people of Eastern Ghouta in the Afrin area is still continuing.’ It says that Abdul Nasser Shamir, the military commander of Faylaq al-Rahman, one of the most important armed groups previously fighting the Syrian government in Eastern Ghouta, has been settled along with his top commanders in a town in Afrin.

Other displaced people from Eastern Ghouta are being moved into houses from which their Kurdish inhabitants have fled and are not being allowed to return according to SOHR. It says that refugees from Eastern Ghouta object to what is happening , saying they do not want to settle in Afrin, “where the Turkish forces provide them with houses owned by people displaced from Afrin”.

The Eastern Ghouta refugees say they resent being the instrument of “an organised demographic change” at the behest of Turkey which would, in effect, replace Kurds with Arabs in Afrin. They say they reject this plan, just as they reject any demographic change orchestrated by the Syrian government and Russia in their own home region of Eastern Ghouta, where shelling killed about 1,800 civilians and injured some 6,000. The SOHR notes that the ethnic cleansing by Turkey of Afrin is being carried out “amid a media blackout” and and is being ignored internationally.

The Yazidi Kurds fear that the slaughter and enslavement they endured at the hands of Isis in Sinjar in 2014 might happen again. Mr Qamber is living safely with his wife Adula Mahmoud Safar to the east of Qamishli, the de facto capital of Rojava as the Kurds call their territory in north east Syria. But he is pessimistic about the future, expecting Turkey to invade the rest of Rojava.

He says that many Turkish officials say that “if the Kurds live in a tent in Africa, that tent should be destroyed”. He adds that because the Turks and their Arab allies see the Yazidis as both infidels and Kurds, they are the doubly jeopardised and will be the biggest losers in any future war waged by Turkey against the Kurds.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria, Yazidis 
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Political leaders in power generally like small wars. It enables them to stand tall, wrap the flag around them, pretend they hold the fate of the nation in their hands, and denigrate their opponents as unpatriotic softies.

Theresa May is behaving in keeping with this stereotype since ordering four British planes to join the very limited air attack on three Syrian facilities on Saturday morning. Her performances are low-key but resolute, occasionally aping Elizabeth I at Tilbury defying the Spanish Armada, but more usually recalling a stern-faced Judi Dench as M, sending 007 on some dangerous but necessary mission to thwart the plots of the enemy. The trick is to appear weighed down by a terrible sense of responsibility, but not afraid to take decisive action in defence of our nation.

The media likewise enjoys a short sharp military conflict. It is good for business because people have a stronger imperative than normal to find out what is happening in the world. The first newspapers were born out of the wars at the end of the 16th and beginning of 17th centuries. Military conflict is exciting and provides plenty of melodrama that can be reported as a simple conflict between good and evil.

On this occasion, the minimalist nature of the strikes left news anchors and their caste of reporters all dressed up but with nowhere to go. Their sense of disappointment and anticlimax at not reporting a real war was ill-concealed. Suddenly, there were too many actors on stage without enough lines to speak, though each, from Washington to Moscow to Beirut (few seem to have made it to Damascus, presumably because of an absence of visas), had to have their say even when they had nothing of interest to report. Coverage was consequently tedious and unrevealing since even those correspondents with something original and interesting to say did not have the time to say it.

But the air strikes on Saturday morning should not be dismissed simply as a glorified PR stunt. They have a very real significance, though one that is diametrically the opposite to that claimed by Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron. What we saw was not a demonstration of strength by the US, UK and France but a demonstration of weakness.

The evidence for this, reflecting the real balance of power in Syria, is the list of targets that were not attacked rather than the three that were. Tremendous efforts were made not to kill or injure any Russians, as the dominant political and military force in Syria. The Iranians and Hezbollah of Lebanon were evidently out of bounds. So too was the Syrian army, including its elite divisions, heavy equipment and ammunition dumps. Unlike Baghdad in 1991, 1998 and 2003, there were no cruise missiles striking empty but iconic sites like the presidential palace or defence ministry buildings in Damascus.

Theresa May and Boris Johnson argue that the air strikes were simply “humanitarian” in intent and to prevent the “normalisation” of the use of poison gas. Johnson speaks as if Assad were the first to use gas since the First World War, ignoring the tens of thousands of Iranians and Kurds gassed in the Iran-Iraq war by Saddam Hussein, who was supported by the US, UK and France.

Suppose that the threat of renewed air strikes does deter Assad: this is not necessarily great news for the Syrian people because less than 1 per cent – some 1,900 people out of the half a million Syrians who have died violently in the wars since 2011 – have died by gas. If foreign leaders showed any real concern over seven years of butchery in Syria, they would have made greater efforts in the past to bring this horrendous war to an end.

The restrained nature of the air strikes was sensible and realistic, reflecting the real balance of power in Syria. Assad is backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Shia forces from Iraq and has largely won the civil war. This is not going to change without an open-ended campaign of mass bombing in support of rebel ground troops like that which Nato conducted in Libya in 2011.

A similar campaign could not be conducted against Assad because, unlike Isis, he has powerful foreign allies in the shape of Russia and Iran. As the US discovered to its cost, the only determined and experienced anti-Assad fighters available, aside from the Kurds, belong to Isis and al-Qaeda. Remember how, in 2016, an embarrassed Pentagon admitted spending $500m to produce just five trained moderate pro-US fighters, rather than the 5,000 it had expected?

The point is that even far more extensive air strikes would not have changed the outcome of the Syrian war, though they would certainly have escalated it and killed a lot more people. There is a myth, lately adopted by President Trump, that President Obama lost a real opportunity to weaken or get rid of Assad in 2013, but the factors that restrained Obama then apply today with equal force to Trump: it is not possible to get rid of Assad without a wider war and, even if he went, the outcome would be a collapse of the state, as in Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq, producing chaos in which Isis and al-Qaeda will flourish.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Britain, Russia, Syria 
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“Big noise on the stairs, but nobody comes into the room,” runs an old Chinese saying. This is an apt description of the very limited airstrikes on Syria launched by the US, Britain and France overnight, which came after apocalyptic tweets from President Trump and threats of military retaliation by Russian diplomats.

In the event, the fears of a “Russian-American clash” and runaway confrontation leading to a “third world war” have turned out to be overblown. They did not look quite so exaggerated earlier in the week when Trump tweeted about US missiles: “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart’.”

The Russians hinted that their retaliation might include American targets.

Of all the options available, the US-led coalition chose the one involving minimal action and geared not to provoke Russia or Iran. This was a one-off attack on three suspected Syrian chemical weapons facilities, one in Damascus and two west of Homs. It was more of a gesture of disapproval than an attempt to damage President Bashar al-Assad’s military machine. Hours after the missiles had struck, his supporters were understandably demonstrating their defiance in the centre of Damascus.

Trump, reportedly under pressure from his military chiefs, may have chosen the most cautious option, but in fact there were no good options. Assad has all but won the civil war. Even if it was possible to weaken him, this might present opportunities to Isis and al-Qaeda, which are battered but not entirely out of business.

The attacks may or may not deter Assad from using poison gas in future, but they will not change the balance of power against him. Chemical weapons are only a small part of his arsenal and have played only a minor military role in the war. Out of the half million Syrians who have died in the conflict over the last seven years, just 1,900 are estimated to have been killed by chemical weapons.

Yet the military balance of power really has changed in Syria over the last week, although the reason for this has largely passed unnoticed internationally because of the focus on the gas attack in Douma and its consequences. The big development is that Douma, the last armed opposition stronghold in Eastern Ghouta, surrendered to the Syrian armed forces on 8 April. The remaining Jaysh al-Islam fighters have been taken by bus to Turkish-held territory in northern Syria during the course of the week. This is Assad’s greatest victory of the war, surpassing in importance even the recapture of East Aleppo at the end of 2016.

The Syrian army began its so-called Rif Dimashq offensive against the towns and villages of Eastern Ghouta on 20 February. For seven years, the survival of this opposition enclave in east Damascus had been a sign that Assad did not control all of his own country. There were rebels within mortar range of the heart of his own capital who regularly bombarded the Old City. In the past there were other such opposition enclaves, but they have fallen one by one.

Eastern Ghouta had a population of 400,000 and was partly agricultural so could feed itself to some degree. It was at first blockaded rather than besieged, with supplies coming in through a vast tunnel network and permissive or corrupt government checkpoints.

But in the last year the government has closed entry and exit through its checkpoints and has blocked the tunnels. Inhabitants started to suffer from an acute shortage of food, fuel and medical supplies. The scarcity got worse when the government began its offensive in February. Much of the population took refuge in basements where they could only see in the dark by using small torches. Those who lived there complained of the lack of fresh water and food, the stench because of broken sewage pipes and the presence of venomous scorpions.

Possibly it was the Syrian government’s frustration at the continued resistance of part of Jaysh al-Islam, the Saudi-backed jihadi movement in Douma, that led it to use chlorine gas. It had done so before without provoking an international reaction, but this time authentic-looking video was broadcast around the world showing dying children gasping for breath. The pictures provoked a wave of international fury which culminated in the US-led airstrikes on 14 April.

If the Syrian government’s purpose in launching a chemical weapons attack was to force the final surrender of the Douma rebels, then it succeeded. Within hours of it happening, Russian military police moved into Douma to supervise the departure of rebel fighters and to suppress looting by government forces. On 12 April, the Syrian national flag was finally raised over a building in central Douma and the long siege was over.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Russia, Syria 
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The most important point about the impending missile strikes in Syria by the US, Britain and France is being missed, despite wall-to-wall media coverage.

The purported aim of the attack is to deter President Bashar al-Assad from using chemical weapons as a weapon in the Syrian civil war. But the history of this savage conflict, in which half a million people have died, shows that all sides employ every possible method to kill or maim their enemies. Preventing the use of one type of armament, and that not the most important, will make little difference.

The only way to stop the deployment of poisoned gas in Syria is to stop the use of all weapons, by bringing the war to an end. But in the run-up to military action against Assad’s forces, there is depressingly little discussion about how this might be done.

Insofar as there is discussion, it is to the effect that either the air strikes will not change the balance of power on the ground, or they will somewhat weaken Assad and prevent him winning a decisive victory in the war.

This is the same old discredited policy that the US and its western allies have pursued for the last five years, since they realised that the armed opposition to Assad was dominated by various al-Qaeda clones, such as Isis and al-Nusra, which would replace him if he ever fell from power.

In cooperation with Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, they helped the rebels sufficiently to keep the war going against Assad, but not enough for them to win. As early as August 2012, a report by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, stated that “the Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria”.

It is worth reading in full the DIA report which forecasts “the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria”. This was two years before Isis declared the Islamic State.

Some conspiracy theorists conclude that the US covertly supported the rise of Isis and al-Qaeda, but a more credible accusation is that Washington and its allies created the conditions in which they flourished.

This was a calamitous error in judgement: when the Syrian army withdrew from northern and eastern Syria in 2012, it created a vacuum that was swiftly filled by al-Qaeda fanatics. Revolt in Syria restarted the sectarian civil war in Iraq. Isis captured Raqqa and Mosul, spread to the rest of the Islamic world and began its terrorist attacks in western Europe.

The same catastrophic mistake is now being made again as Western military forces ready themselves to attack Syria. Contrary to the pretence by the governments of the US, UK and France that their great concern is the sufferings of the Syrian people, their actions will simply deepen these because their only likely impact will be to lengthen the war.

Even supposing they succeed in doing something to curtail the use of poison gas by Assad, this has so far killed an estimated 1,900 Syrians out of a total of half a million who have died violently since 2011.

Ending the war is the only way to reduce civilian casualties, and everything else is hypocrisy and pretence. What is really killing people in Syria is the war which western powers stoked year after year with the intention that neither side would win.

Their real concern in firing missiles at Assad’s forces is as a demonstration of power in the face of defiance by Syria, Russia and Iran. Aside from making this gesture, they do not really want to change the present toxic situation in Syria. This may explain their hesitation in beginning the missile strikes.

It is easy enough to condemn the US, UK and France for their past failings, but what could they really do to help Syria? They need to accept in public, as they have long done in private, that Assad, backed by his Russian and Iranian allies, is going to hold onto power.

In control of Damascus, Aleppo and the biggest Syrian cities, he is not going to be removed by anything less than a US-led land invasion, along the lines of Iraq in 2003. Out of 16 million Syrians in the country – another 6-7 million are refugees are in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – about 12 million are in areas controlled by Assad, two million by the Kurds and the same number in rebel and Turkish-held areas in Idlib province and north and west of Aleppo.

His victory is becoming irreversible, but international recognition of it should be conditional on the return to their homes of the refugees, a quarter of the prewar population, along with an internationally monitored amnesty and freeing of prisoners.

The Syrian Kurds would like a deal with Damascus giving them regional autonomy, since however much they dislike the Assad government, they are even more frightened of a Turkish invasion. The Kurds fear ethnic cleansing by the Turks and their Sunni Arab auxiliaries from the whole of northern Syria.

Syria is being destroyed because it has become the arena in which international and regional rivalries are fought out. Foreign intervention fuels the civil war and the civil war entraps outside sponsors of local Syrian proxies in their fiercely fought sectarian and ethnic battles. In many ways, the role of foreign intervention in Syria today resembles that of outside powers in the Balkans before 1914.

It is a highly dangerous situation. Syrian, Russian, Israeli, US, Turkish, British and French aircraft and missiles will have to manoeuvre to avoid shooting each other down. As in the Balkans a century ago, some of the most violent and embittered people in the world – in his case the different sides in the Syrian civil war – are in a position to generate friction that could see the coalitions headed by the US and Russia tumble into an unwanted conflict.

Negotiations to end the Syrian war in general, not just the side issue of chemical weapons, should be the priority but these are difficult and not just because of the complexity of the issues. The media is to blame for presenting the civil war as a simple fight between evil (Assad) and good (anybody opposed to Assad).

This demonisation makes the compromises necessary to bring peace near impossible, because nobody dares be seen shaking hands with the devil. This leaves missile strikes as the only instrument of policy, but these will only escalate and prolong the war without changing its outcome.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Russia, Syria 
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Every atrocity in the Syrian civil war provokes a furious row about whether it happened and, if so, who was responsible for carrying it out. The merciless brutality of all sides combines with partisan reporting and lack of access for independent investigators to make it possible for doubts to be generated about even the most blatant war crime. One good rule is that participants in the war are often accurate about the crimes of their opponents while they invariably lie or are silent about their own.

This rule appears to hold good in the case of the poison gas attack on the city of Douma on 7 April, which killed at least 34 people and possibly twice as many. The Russian military claim that the attack was faked by pro-opposition activists and that samples taken from the site of where the civilians died were not toxic. The Syrian government issues blanket denials when accused of using poison gas.

But there is mounting evidence from neutral observers to confirm that chlorine was used last Saturday. The World Health Organisation says that local health authorities in Douma, with whom it is cooperating, confirm that on the day of the alleged bombing they treated 500 patients with the symptoms of exposure to toxic chemicals. It reports that “there were signs of severe irritation of mucous membranes, respiratory failure and disruption to the central nervous systems of those exposed”.

Other evidence for the gassing of civilians is cumulatively convincing: large gas cylinders, like those used in past chlorine gas attacks, were filmed on the roof of the building where most bodies were found. Local people report that Syrian government helicopters were seen in the area at the time of the attack. Such helicopters have been used in chlorine gas bombings in the past.

The Russian and Syrian government accounts of what happened, varying between saying there were no attacks or that evidence for them has been fabricated, are contradictory. A Russian spokeswoman said on Wednesday that the use of “smart missiles” on Syrian government forces could be an attempt to destroy the evidence.

The allegations of fabrication are generalised and non-specific and amount to a conspiracy theory for which no evidence is ever produced, other than to throw doubt on the partiality of those who say that chlorine was used. It is true that many of the sources cited by the western media as if they were bipartisan eye-witness accounts are committed supporters of the opposition. But the Russian and Syrian governments have never produced any counter-evidence to give credence to the elaborate plot that would be necessary to fake the use of poison gas or to really use it, but put the blame on Syrian government air power.

The most convincing reason advanced by those who argue that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces did not carry out the attack is that it was entirely against their interests to do so. They have already won militarily in Douma and the second of two convoys carrying thousands of Army of Islam fighters and their families left for Turkish-controlled northern Syria today. And this latest success brings Assad with sight – though it is still a distant one – of a complete victory over his enemies.

For all the furore about the proposed missile strike on Syrian forces – likely to happen in the very near future – it is difficult to see what it will achieve other than as a general sign of international disapproval of the use of chemical weapons. Hawks in the US and Europe may want to use the occasion to reopen the door to armed intervention in the Syrian civil war with the aim of weakening or displacing Assad, but the time for this is long past, if it was ever there.

There is a widely-held myth that US airstrikes against government forces in 2013, which President Barack Obama is blamed for not having carried out, would have brought the war to a different and happier conclusion. But such airstrikes would only have been effective if they had been conducted on a mass scale and on a daily basis in support of ground troops. These would either have been Sunni Arab armed opposition forces, which were already dominated by al-Qaeda-type movements, or the US army in a re-run of the Iraq war of 2003.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Media, Russia, Syria 
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The crises in the Middle East are beginning to join up and cross-infect each other. Israeli aircraft fired missiles at Syria’s T4 military airbase east of Homs early on Monday, just as other Israeli jets were making attacks on Gaza. President Donald Trump must decide whether or not he will order air strikes targeting Syrian government forces as a punishment for the alleged dropping of bombs filled with chlorine gas on a rebel-held part of the city of Douma in Eastern Ghouta that killed at least 40 civilians on Saturday night.

Trump will have difficulty not doing something impressive after denouncing “Animal Assad” and promising that the Syrian leader would “pay a price” for the gas attack. Trump has also denounced President Barak Obama for his timidity in his use of US military strength against President Bashar al-Assad, so the US may do something spectacular.

What is more doubtful is whether or not US air strikes will have much impact in the long term. In many respects, the political situation on the ground in Syria has gelled as Assad asserts his control over most of populated Syria. The last rebels are being evacuated from Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus. Syrian troops and tanks are reported to be massing to overrun an Isis held stronghold in the south of the capital.

Syria is being divided into three zones of unequal size: Assad backed by Russia and Iran in much of the country; Sunni Arab factions backed by Turkey in Idlib, newly captured Afrin and territory north of Aleppo; and in the north and east, a large triangle of land east of the Euphrates held by the Kurds supported by 2,000 US troops able to call in massive air power. Even heavy US air strikes on a one-off basis will not significantly change this balance of power.

It remains mysterious why Assad should provoke the US and Europeans just at his moment of victory in Damascus and when the rebels are on the point of surrender or have already done so. Remarkably, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, says that Russian experts were able to enter the hospital in Douma where the chemical attack occurred – something which suggests the city has fallen – and interview eyewitnesses. He said: “Our military specialists have visited this place … and they did not find any trace of chlorine or any other chemical substance used against civilians.” But the US state Department has said that Syrian forces are denying entry to international inspectors.

Just because a poison gas attack at this stage would be an extremely stupid thing for the Syrian government to do, however, does not mean that they did not do it. As with many other atrocities in the Syrian war, there is always a residue of doubt about what really happened because of the lack of independent non-partisan reporting and investigation.

Trump is finding that there are limits to US power in Syria, which primarily depends on launching air strikes while the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) act as a mopping up force on the ground. But after the fall of their enclave at Afrin, the Kurds are mobilising to hold back the Turkish army and its Arab auxiliaries, many of them jihadis. In the long term, the Kurds are looking for a deal with Assad and have no intention of fighting him. In general, Trump’s instinct to get out of Syria is a sound one, and the interventionist ambitions of the Washington foreign policy establishment depend heavily on wishful thinking.

What makes the present situation potentially even more dangerous than it looks is the presence of various wild cards. Trump is clearly at odds with the Pentagon over a US military withdrawal from Syria, once Isis is finally eliminated. Nobody knows the final shape of US policy or whether it will finally take a concrete shape or remain fluid.

Washington could become more aggressive as the new national security adviser John Bolton and secretary of state Mike Pompeo take office. But the swift demise of their predecessors may argue that these super-hawks will have less leeway to exert their influence than they had hope and others feared.

As for Israel, the latest crisis in Syria comes as a useful diversion from the escalating crisis in Gaza, but the latter is not going to go away. The two Israeli F-15s fired their missiles at T4 airbase from inside Lebanese airspace, showing a degree of caution. As Assad becomes stronger and gains control of more and more of Syria, Israel will want to flex its military muscles but this does not necessarily mean that Israel wants to fight a war with Syria or Hezbollah, despite the belligerent rhetoric on all sides.

As we get closer to 12 May – when Trump has to decide if he will effectively pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – different crises contribute to raising the political temperature in the region. In a situation as complex as this, no country may want a wider war, but they could easily stumble into one.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, Syria 
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Thousands of protesters returned to the border this Friday, burning great heaps of tyres to produce a black smokescreen which they hoped would hide them from Israeli snipers. Gaza’s health ministry has said that five people were killed and 1,070 people were wounded on Friday, including 293 by live fire.

The demonstrators know what to expect. A video from the first day of the march shows a protester being shot in the back by an Israeli sniper as he walks away from the fence separating Gaza from Israel. In other footage, Palestinians are killed or wounded as they pray, walk empty-handed towards the border fence, or simply hold up a Palestinian flag. All who get within 300 yards are labelled “instigators” by the Israeli army, whose soldiers have orders to shoot them.

“Nothing was carried out uncontrolled; everything was accurate and measured, and we know where every bullet landed,” claimed a tweet from the Israeli military the day after the mass shooting on 30 March at the start of 45 days of what Palestinians call the “Great March of Return” to the homes they had in Israel 70 years ago. The tweet was deleted soon after, possibly because film had emerged of a protester being shot from behind.

The sheer scale of the casualties on the first day of the protest a week ago is striking, with as many as 16 killed and 1,415 injured, of whom 758 were hit by live fire according to Gaza health officials. These figures are contested by Israel, which says that the injured numbered only a few dozen. But Human Rights Watch spoke to doctors at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City who said that they had treated 294 injured demonstrators, mostly “with injuries to the lower limbs from live ammunition”.

Imagine for a moment that it was not the two million Palestinian in Gaza, who are mostly refugees from 1948, but the six million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan who had staged a march to return to the homes that they have lost in Syria since 2011. Suppose that, as they approach the Syrian border, they were fired on by the Syrian army and hundreds of them were killed or injured. Syria would certainly claim that the demonstrators were armed and dangerous, though this would be contradicted by the absence of casualties among the Syrian military.

The international outcry against the murderous Syrian regime in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin would have echoed around the world. Boris Johnson would have denounced Assad as a butcher and Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, would have held up pictures of the dead and dying before the Security Council.

Of course, Israel would furiously deny that there was any parallel between the two situations. Its government spokesman, David Keyes, rebuked CNN for even using the word “protest” when “what actually happened is that Hamas engineered an event where they wanted thousands of people to swarm into Israel, to crush Israel, to commit acts of terror. Indeed, we have captured on camera pictures of people shooting guns, people placing bombs, people shooting rockets.”

In the event, no pictures of these supposedly well-armed protesters ever emerged. But four days later, Human Rights Watch published a report entitled Israel: Gaza Killings Unlawful, Calculated. Officials Green-Light Shooting of Unarmed Demonstrators, which said that it “could find no evidence of any protester using firearms”. It added that footage published by the Israeli army showing two men shooting at Israeli troops turned out not to have been filmed at the protest.

Israeli ministers are unabashed by the discrediting of claims that the demonstrators pose a military threat to Israel. Defence minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israeli soldiers had “warded off Hamas military branch operatives capably and resolutely … They have my full backing.” The free-fire policy is continuing as before and, as a result, the Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, has launched a campaign called “Sorry Commander I Cannot Shoot”, which encourages soldiers to refuse to shoot unarmed civilians on the grounds that this is illegal.

Why is the surge in Palestinian protests coming now and why is Israel responding so violently? There is nothing new in Palestinian demonstrations about the loss of their land and Israel’s aggressive military response. But there may be particular reasons that a confrontation is happening now, such as Palestinian anger at President Trump’s decision in December to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and the move of the US embassy to there from Tel Aviv. This trumpeted Washington’s unconditional support for the Israeli position and the US disregard for the Palestinians and any remaining hopes they might have to win at least some concessions with US support.

Strong support from the Trump administration is reported by the Israeli press to be further reason why the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, feels that bad publicity over the shootings in Gaza will not damage Israel’s position in the US. In the past, controversy over the mass killings of Palestinian or Lebanese by Israel has sometimes provoked a negative US response that has curbed Israel’s use of force.

So far, Israel has faced little criticism from an international media uninterested in the Gaza story, or else is happy to go along with Israel’s interpretation of events. The vocabulary used by news outlets is often revealing: for instance, the BBC website on 31 March had a headline reading “Gaza-Israel border: Clashes ‘leave 16 Palestinians dead and hundreds injured”. The word “clashes” implies combat between two groups capable of fighting each other, though, as Human Rights Watch says, the demonstrators pose no threat to an all-powerful Israeli military machine – a point reinforced by the fact that all the dead and wounded are Palestinian.

Possibly, the Israelis are miscalculating the impact of excessive use of force on public opinion: in the age of wifi and the internet, graphic images of the victims of violence are immediately broadcast to the world, often with devastating effect. As in Syria and Iraq, the political price of besieging or blockading urban areas like Gaza or Eastern Ghouta is rising because it is impossible to prevent information about the sufferings of those trapped inside such an enclaves becoming public, though this may have no impact on the course of events.

Contrary to Keyes’ claims, the idea of a mass march against the fence seems to have first emerged in social media in Gaza and was only later adopted by Hamas. It is the only strategy likely to show results for the Palestinians because they have no military option, no powerful allies and their leadership is moribund and corrupt. But they do have numbers: a recent report to the Israeli Knesset saying that there are roughly 6.5 million Palestinian Arabs and an equal number of Jewish Israeli citizens in Israel and the West Bank, not counting those in East Jerusalem and Gaza. Israel has usually had more difficulty in dealing with non-violent civil rights type mass movements among Palestinians than it has had fighting armed insurgencies.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Gaza, Israel Lobby, Israel/Palestine 
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Donald Trump has decided to keep US forces in Syria for a limited period, ending speculation about an immediate pull-out fuelled by the president himself. He agreed at a National Security Council meeting that the 2,000 US troops backed by massive airpower should stay in Syria where they support the Kurds in the east of the country.

“We’re not going to immediately withdraw, but neither is the president willing to back a long-term commitment,” said a senior administration official. He added that Mr Trump wanted to ensure the final defeat of Isis and would like other countries to help stabilise Syria.

The White House said later that its military mission to eradicate Isis in Syria “is coming to a rapid end”.

In recent weeks Mr Trump has been at odds with the Pentagon in promising a swift US withdrawal, just as senior generals were reiterating their commitment to stand by the Syrian Kurdish forces, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). These hold between 25 and 30 per cent of Syria and are the only US ally in the country. Isis has lost almost all its territory but is reverting to guerrilla warfare in parts of eastern Syria. Its fighters have been emboldened by the withdrawal of YPG forces, which have gone to confront the Turkish-led invasion of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northern Syria.

The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran held a summit in Ankara on Wednesday to try to find common ground on the future of Syria where they all have military forces. Their agendas differ radically, with Russia and Iran supporting President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey wants him removed from power.

The one big aim uniting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in their approach to the Syrian conflict is that they all want US forces out of Syria, though their motives differ. Mr Putin and Mr Rouhani want Mr Assad’s forces to extend their control to the east and north of the country, while Turkey wants to destroy the Kurdish quasi-state, which the Syrian Kurds call Rojava, which has grown up east of the Euphrates during the war against Isis.

If the limited number of US ground troops were pulled out of Syria, along with – most crucially – the YPG’s ability to call in massive US airstrikes, then the YPG would be unable to stop a Turkish invasion across the long Syrian-Turkish border. The north Syrian plain is flat and could not be defended against Turkish tanks backed by airstrikes.

In a joint statement released at the end of their summit, Mr Putin, Mr Rouhani and Mr Erdogan said they “rejected all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism”. This is a clear reference to the US. They said they were committed to Syria’s unity, but this is not preventing them intervening by using local proxies and allies. No Syrian parties attended the Ankara summit, the second in a series of three with the next one to be held in Tehran.

Mr Rouhani called on Turkey to hand over Afrin to the Syrian army, something that is unlikely to happen. Russia is eager to cement its new alliance with Turkey, but at the same time is committed to Mr Assad whom it has just helped to retake almost all of Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus. It was Russia’s willingness to allow Turkey to use its airforce in Afrin, which had previously been defended by Russian aircraft and anti-aircraft missiles, that opened the door for the Turkish invasion on 20 January and the capture of Afrin city two months later.

The Russian-Turkish-Iranian alliance looks opportunistic and temporary, but it might have a longer life than some commentators expect. Iran badly needs diplomatic allies and commercial partners if Mr Trump effectively withdraws the US from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on 12 May when he once again has to certify Iranian compliance, something he has said he will not do.

Turkey needs Russian support or neutrality if it is to broaden its intervention against the Kurds in northern Syria. Mr Putin probably gave a green light to the Turkish invasion of Afrin in order to fuel the US-Turkish confrontation, as the US tries to protect its Kurdish allies and Turkey seeks to destroy them.

The three countries meeting in Ankara pledged to stabilise Syria, and this, to some extent, they can do because Isis has been eliminated as a territorial state, though not as a guerrilla force. Isis will be hoping that differences among its enemies will enable it to strengthen itself once again.

Mr Assad will soon control all of Damascus, Aleppo and the most highly populated areas in Syria. He will also draw hope from the fact that, while the Syrian Kurds do not like his government, they prefer it to the prospect of being overrun by the Turkish army and its Sunni Arab auxiliaries.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Iran, Russia, Syria, Turkey 
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Armed conflict between the US and Iran is becoming more probable by the day as super-hawks replace hawks in the Trump administration. The new National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has called for the US to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 and advocated immediate regime change in Tehran. The new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has said the agreement, which Trump may withdraw from on 12 May, is “a disaster”. Trump has told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will not accept a deal with “cosmetic changes” as advocated by European states, according to Israeli reporters. If this is so, then the deal is effectively dead.

The escalating US-Iran confrontation is causing menacing ripples that could soon become waves across the Middle East. The price of crude oil is up because of fears of disruption of supply from the Gulf. In Iran, the value of the rial is at its lowest ever, having fallen by a quarter in the last six months. In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi admits his greatest fear is a confrontation between the US and Iran fought out in Iraq.

A dangerous aspect of the super-hawk approach to Iran is similar to that of the Bush administration in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In both cases, those calling for use of armed force had, or have, lethally little knowledge of what they were/are getting into. Pompeo had a simple solution to the Iranian problem when he was still a congressman, telling reporters it would take “under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity”.

Optimists, though these have become fewer on the ground in Washington in the last few weeks, are dismissive of such bellicose rhetoric. But whatever Trump and his lieutenants think they are doing, their words have consequences. Governments have to take threats seriously and devise counter-measures to meet them in case the worst comes to the worst. In the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, American neo-conservatives boastfully proclaimed it would be “Baghdad today, Tehran and Damascus tomorrow”. These slogans were enough to ensure the Syrian and Iranian governments did everything in their power to make sure that the US could not stay in Iraq.

Looking back, the invasion of Iraq marked the turning point for the hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon powers – the US and the UK – on the world stage. The fraudulent justification for the war and the failure of those who launched it to get their way against relatively puny opponents turned a conflict which was meant to be a show of strength into a demonstration of weakness. Foreign intervention in Libya and Syria in 2011 produced similar calamities.

If we are on the edge of a fresh crisis in the Middle East, centring on Iran, then the US is in a much weaker position than it was pre-Trump. Domestically divided and short of allies, it can no longer control the rules of the game as it once did. Over the last year there are two examples of this: in May, Trump visited Saudi Arabia giving unequivocal backing to its rulers and blaming the troubles of the region on Iran. But it turned out that the prime target of Saudi Arabia and UAE was not Iran but tiny Qatar. All Trump had achieved was to break the previously united front of Gulf monarchies against Iran.

In another major misjudgement by the US in January, the supposedly moderate Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the US would be keeping its forces in Syria after the defeat of Isis, and intended to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad and roll back Iranian influence. This ambition was largely fantasy, but the Russian and Turkish reaction was real. Four days after Tillerson’s arrogant declaration, the Turkish army poured into northern Syria with Russian permission and within two months had eliminated the enclave of Afrin, inhabited by Kurds who are the only US ally in Syria. The Kurds are now rather desperately hoping they will not be left in the lurch by the US in the event of a Turkish military assault on the main Kurdish-held territory in north-east Syria.

I was in the Kurdish-held zone in Syria earlier this month and wondered what the US will do if the Turks did decide to advance further. The north Syrian plain east of the Euphrates is dead flat with little cover, while the main Kurdish cities are right on the Turkish border and highly vulnerable. The US only has 2,000 troops there, and their effectiveness depends on their ability to call in devastating airstrikes by the US air force. This is a powerful option, but would the US really use it in defence of the Kurds against Nato ally Turkey?

What Trump claims was President Obama’s weakness of will and poor negotiating skills was in reality an astute ability to match US means to US interests and avoid being sucked into unwinnable wars. This was never really understood by the Washington foreign policy establishment, which is stuck in the pre-2003 era when US strength was at its height in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still less is it grasped by super-hawks like Bolton and Pompeo, with no idea of the political and military minefields into which they are about to stumble.

The US establishment and its allies may be aghast at Trump withdrawing from the nuclear deal, but it looks more than likely he is going to do it. Sanctions on Iran may be reimposed, but these are never quite the winning card that those imposing them imagine, whatever the suffering inflicted on the general population. Sanctions unilaterally imposed by Trump may damage Iran, but they will also isolate the US.

Whatever the outcome of a confrontation between the US and Iran, it is not going to “Make America Great Again”. The northern corridor of the Middle East, south of Turkey and north of Saudi Arabia, has always been the graveyard of US interventionism: this was true of Lebanon in the 1980s when the US embassy was blown up, and when 241 US services personnel (including 220 marines) were killed by a truck bomb in Beirut. This was true in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, and Syria from 2011 to the present day. The US has commonly blamed Iran for these frustrations, an explanation that has some validity, but the real reason is that the US has been fighting a sect rather than a single state. All these countries where the US has failed either have a Shia majority, as in the case of Iran and Iraq, a plurality, as in Lebanon, or are a ruling minority, as in Syria. As the most powerful Shia state, Iran has an immense advantage when it comes to fighting its enemies in such a sympathetic religious terrain.

The new line-up in Washington is being described as “a war cabinet” and it may turn out to be just that. But looking at ignorant, arrogant men like Bolton and Pompeo, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that it will all end in disaster.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, Iran, Neocons 
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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