The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
 
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New Reply
Anti-Shia propaganda threatens a sectarian civil war which will engulf the entire Muslim world
🔊 Listen RSS

Anti-Shia hate propaganda spread by Sunni religious figures sponsored by, or based in, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies, is creating the ingredients for a sectarian civil war engulfing the entire Muslim world. Iraq and Syria have seen the most violence, with the majority of the 766 civilian fatalities in Iraq this month being Shia pilgrims killed by suicide bombers from the al-Qa’ida umbrella group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis). The anti-Shia hostility of this organisation, now operating from Baghdad to Beirut, is so extreme that last month it had to apologise for beheading one of its own wounded fighters in Aleppo – because he was mistakenly believed to have muttered the name of Shia saints as he lay on a stretcher.

At the beginning of December, al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula killed 53 doctors and nurses and wounded 162 in an attack on a hospital in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, which had been threatened for not taking care of wounded militants by a commentator on an extreme Sunni satellite TV station. Days before the attack, he announced that armies and tribes would assault the hospital “to take revenge for our brothers. We say this and, by the grace of Allah, we will do it”.

Skilled use of the internet and access to satellite television funded by or based in Sunni states has been central to the resurgence of al-Qa’ida across the Middle East, to a degree that Western politicians have so far failed to grasp. In the last year, Isis has become the most powerful single rebel military force in Iraq and Syria, partly because of its ability to recruit suicide bombers and fanatical fighters through the social media. Western intelligence agencies, such as the NSA in the US, much criticised for spying on the internet communications of their own citizens, have paid much less attention to open and instantly accessible calls for sectarian murder that are in plain view. Critics say that this is in keeping with a tradition since 9/11 of Western governments not wishing to hold Saudi Arabia or the Gulf monarchies responsible for funding extreme Sunni jihadi groups and propagandists supporting them through private donations.

Satellite television, internet, YouTube and Twitter content, frequently emanating from or financed by oil states in the Arabian peninsula, are at the centre of a campaign to spread sectarian hatred to every corner of the Muslim world, including places where Shia are a vulnerable minority, such as Libya, Tunisia, Egypt and Malaysia. In Benghazi, in effect the capital of eastern Libya, a jihadi group uploaded a video of the execution of an Iraqi professor who admitted to being a Shia, saying they had shot him in revenge for the execution of Sunni militants by the Iraqi government.

YouTube-inspired divisions are not confined to the Middle East: in London’s Edgware Road there was a fracas this summer when a Salafi (Sunni fundamentalist) cleric held a rally in the face of objections from local Shia shopkeepers. Impelled by television preachers and the social media, sectarian animosities are deepening among hitherto moderate Sunni and Shia, with one Shia figure in the UK saying that “Even in London you could open the address books of most Sunni without finding any Shia names, and vice versa.”

The hate propaganda is often gory and calls openly for religious war. One anti-Shia satellite television station shows a grouping of Shia clerical leaders, mostly from Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, labelled as “Satan’s assistants”. Another asks “Oh Sunni Muslims, how long will you wait when your sons are led to be hanged in Iraq? Is it now time to break the shackles?” A picture of a woman in black walking between what appear to be two militiamen is entitled “Shia men in Syria rape Sunni sisters”, and another shows the back of a pick-up truck heaped with dead bodies in uniform, titled “The destiny of Syrian Army and Shia soldiers”. Some pictures are intended to intimidate, such as one showing an armed convoy on a road in Yemen, with a message addressed to the Shia saying: “Sunni tribes are on the way”.

Sectarian animosities between Sunni and Shia have existed down the centuries, but have greatly intensified since the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that followed it. Hatreds increased after the US invasion of Iraq and the takeover of what had been a Sunni-run state under Saddam Hussein by the majority Shia community, which generated a ferocious sectarian civil war that peaked in 2006-07 and ended with a Shia victory. Opposition to Iran and the new Shia-run state of Iraq led to Sunni rulers emphasising the Shia threat. Shia activists point in particular to the establishment in 2009 of two satellite channels, Safa TV and Wesal TV, which they accuse of having strong anti-Shia bias. They say that Saudi clerics have shown great skill in communicating extreme sectarian views through modern communications technology such as YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, giving them a much wider audience than they had previously enjoyed.

An example of the inflammatory views being pumped out over YouTube is a sermon by Nabil al-Awadi, a cleric in Kuwait, who has 3.4 million followers on Twitter. His speech is devoted to “exposing the biggest conspiracy the Muslim world faces”, which turns out to be a plot “conceived in Qom [the Shia holy city in Iran], and handled by sayyids and chiefs in Tehran, to get rid of the nation of Islam, aiming to desecrate the Kaaba [the building in Mecca that is Islam's most sacred site] brick by brick”.

Mr Awadi relates that Iraq fell to an enemy whom he does not name, but he clearly means the Shia, often referred to as Safavids after the Iranian dynasty of that name. He says that in Iraq “they were killing the imams with drills in their heads until they are dead and they put the bodies in acid to burn until they died”. But the speaker looks forward to a holy war or jihad in Syria, where a great battle for the future of Islam will be fought and won. He warns that “they did not know that jihad is staying and will put fear in their hearts even if they are in Washington, even if they are in London, even if they are in Moscow”.

In Egypt, the Shia are only a small minority, but a cleric named Mohamed Zoghbi reacted furiously to the suggestion that they appear on satellite television to debate religious differences. “We would cut off their fingers and cut off their tongues,” he said. “I must cut off the Shia breath in Egypt.” Bloodthirsty threats like this have great influence on ordinary viewers, since many Egyptians watch religious channels continuously and believe the opinions expressed on them. An example of what this kind of incitement can mean for Shia living in communities where Sunni are the overwhelming majority was demonstrated in June in the small village of Zawyat Abu Musalam, in Giza governorate in Egypt. Some 40 Shia families had previously lived in the village until an enraged mob, led by Salafist sheikhs, burned five houses and lynched four Shia, including a prominent local figure.

Video films of the lynching, which took place in daylight, show the savage and merciless attacks to which Shia minorities in many countries are now being subjected.

Hazem Barakat, an eyewitness and photojournalist, minutely recorded what happened and recorded it on Twitter in real time. “For three weeks, the Salafist sheikhs in the village have been attacking the Shias and accusing them of being infidels and spreading debauchery,” he told Ahram Online. Film of the incident shows a man, who looks as if he may already be dead, being dragged through a narrow street in the village by a mob. Among the four dead was 66-year-old Hassan Shehata, a well-known Shia leader who had been twice jailed under Hosni Mubarak for “contempt for religion”. Police came to the village but arrived late. “They were just watching the public lynching like everyone else and did not stop anything,” said Mr Barakat.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Shias and Sunnis 
What a contrast between the optimism of the Arab Spring and the dark mood of today's Middle East
🔊 Listen RSS

It was a year of decisions in the Middle East but what was being decided was mostly that conflicts would grow worse. What a contrast there is between the dark mood in the Arab world today and the optimism of three years ago when protesters appeared to be bowling over long-established police states from Bahrain to Benghazi.

Commentators confidently explained how the rise of the internet and satellite television had rendered old methods of repression obsolete and the triumph of progressive and democratic movements was near inevitable.

It has not happened. From Iraq to Libya violence increased, with few signs that there will be any improvement in the coming year. Some crucial dates stand out, such as the military coup in Egypt on 3 July which was followed by a series of massacres of Moslem Brotherhood supporters. Repression is exceeding anything seen under President Hosni Mubarak, with the opposition divided and bemused. Has the counter-revolution won? Much depends on how far Egypt’s military is able to grapple with the country’s economic and social crises.

Crucial to the success of the Arab Spring was the combining of the religious and secular opponents of the existing order. Middle-class bloggers in Cairo came together with angry textile workers in the Delta, while in Damascus students found they had something in common with farmers. But this year there are signs everywhere that this alliance has disintegrated, with human rights activists fleeing Egypt and Libyan demonstrators being killed by the militiamen who overthrew Gaddafi.

In Syria the crucial days came in the aftermath of 21 August when the Syrian government used poison gas against rebel districts in Damascus. If the US was going to intervene militarily this was the moment, but public opinion in the US and UK was against a re-run of Iraq. This means that President Bashar al-Assad will stay in power. The rebels are not strong enough to remove him without Western intervention.

Who were the winners in the Middle East in 2013? One group that emerged stronger are the 30 million Kurds who are close to an independent state in Iraq, and becoming an important player in Syria.

The bad news for the region and for the security of Europe and the US is that the other big winners of 2013 were the al-Qa’ida franchises in Iraq and Syria, who now control territory from the Tigris to the Mediterranean. Western leaders have still not taken on board the significance of this.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Arab Spring, Middle East 
The Hazards of Revolution
🔊 Listen RSS

Soon after the Libyan capital fell to the rebels in August 2011 I got to know a 32-year-old man called Ahmed Abdullah al-Ghadamsi. We met when he tried to evict me from my hotel room, which he said was needed for members of the National Transitional Council, in effect the provisional government of Libya. I wasn’t happy about being moved because the hotel, the Radisson Blu on Tripoli’s seafront, was full of journalists and there was nowhere else to stay. But Ahmed promised to find me another room, and he was as good as his word.

He was lending a hand to the provisional government, he said, because he was strongly opposed to Gaddafi – as was the rest of his family. He came from the Fornaj district of the city, and was contemptuous of the efforts of government spies to penetrate its network of extended families. He derided Gaddafi’s absurd personality cult and his fear of subversive ideas: ‘Books used to be more difficult to bring into the country than weapons. You had to leave them at the airport for two or three months so they could be checked.’ He had spent six years studying in Norway and spoke Norwegian as well as English; on returning to Libya he got a job on the staff of the Radisson Blu. One of Gaddafi’s sons, Al-Saadi, had a suite in the hotel, and he watched the ruling family and their friends doing business and enjoying themselves.

Ahmed was a self-confident man, not noticeably intimidated by the sporadic shooting which was keeping most people in Tripoli off the streets. I asked him if he would consider working for me as a guide and assistant and he agreed. Tripoli had run out of petrol but he quickly found some, along with a car and driver willing to risk the rebel checkpoints. He was adept at talking to the militiamen manning the barricades, and helped me get out of the city when the roads were blocked. After a few weeks I left Libya; I later heard that he was working for other journalists. Then in October I got a message saying that he was dead, shot through the head by a pro-Gaddafi sniper in the final round of fighting in Sirte on the coast far to the east of Tripoli. It turned out that there was a lot that Ahmed hadn’t told me.

When the protests started in Benghazi on 15 February he had been among the first to demonstrate in Fornaj, and he was arrested. His younger brother Mohammed told me that ‘he was jailed for two hours or less before his friends and the protesters broke into the police station and freed him.’ When Gaddafi’s forces regained control of Tripoli, Ahmed drove to the Nafusa Mountains a hundred miles south-west of the capital to try to join the rebels there, but they didn’t know or trust him so he had to return. He smuggled weapons and gelignite into Tripoli and became involved in a plot, never put into action, to blow up Al-Saadi Gaddafi’s suite in the Radisson. Mohammed said Ahmed felt bad that he’d spent much of the revolution making money and, despite his best efforts, had never actually fought. He went to Sirte, where Gaddafi’s forces were making a last stand, and joined a militia group from Misrata. He had no military experience, as far as I know, but he didn’t flinch during bombardments and was stoical when he was caught in an ambush and wounded by shrapnel from a mortar bomb, and the militiamen were impressed. On 8 October his commander told Ahmed to take a squad of five or six men to hunt for snipers who had killed a number of rebel fighters. He was shot dead by one of them a few hours later.

What would Ahmed think of the Libyan revolution now? An interim government is nominally in control but the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi have been full of militia checkpoints manned by some of the 225,000 registered militiamen whose loyalty is to their commanders rather than the state that pays them. When demonstrators appeared outside the headquarters of the Misrata militia in Tripoli on 15 November demanding that they go home, the militiamen opened fire with everything from Kalashnikovs to anti-aircraft guns, killing 43 protesters and wounding some four hundred others. This led to popular protests in which many militias were forced out of Tripoli, though it’s not clear whether this is permanent. Earlier the prime minister, Ali Zeidan, was kidnapped by militia gunmen without a shot being fired by his own guards to protect him. (He was released after a few hours.) Mutinying militias have closed the oil ports to exports and eastern Libya is threatening to secede. The Libyan state has collapsed, for the simple reason that the rebels were too weak to fill the vacuum left by the fall of the old regime. After all, it was Nato airstrikes, not rebel strength, that overthrew Gaddafi.

It’s a similar story elsewhere in the Middle East. The uprisings of the Arab Spring have so far produced anarchy in Libya, a civil war in Syria, greater autocracy in Bahrain and resumed dictatorial rule in Egypt. In Syria, the uprising began in March 2011 with demonstrations against the brutality of Assad’s regime. ‘Peace! Peace!’ protesters chanted. But ‘if there was a fair election in Syria today,’ one commentator said, ‘Assad would probably win it.’

It isn’t only the protesters and insurgents of 2011 whose aspirations are being frustrated or crushed. In March 2003 the majority of Iraqis from all sects and ethnic groups wanted to see the end of Saddam’s disastrous rule even if they didn’t necessarily support the US invasion. But the government now in power in Baghdad is as sectarian, corrupt and dysfunctional as Saddam’s ever was. There may be less state violence, but only because the state is weaker. Its methods are equally brutal: Iraqi prisons are full of people who have made false confessions under torture or the threat of it. An Iraqi intellectual who had planned to open a museum in Abu Ghraib prison so that Iraqis would never forget the barbarities of Saddam’s regime found that there was no space available because the cells were full of new inmates. Iraq is still an extraordinarily dangerous place. ‘I never imagined that ten years after the fall of Saddam you would still be able to get a man killed in Baghdad by paying $100,’ an Iraqi who’d been involved in the abortive museum project told me.

Why have oppositions in the Arab world and beyond failed so absolutely, and why have they repeated in power, or in pursuit of it, so many of the faults and crimes of the old regimes? The contrast between humanitarian principles expressed at the beginning of revolutions and the bloodbath at the end has many precedents, from the French Revolution on. But over the last twenty years in the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus the rapid degradation of what started as mass uprisings has been particularly striking. I was in Moscow at the start of the second Russo-Chechen war in October 1999, and flew with a party of journalists to Chechnya to see the Chechen president, Aslan Maskhadov, in his headquarters in Grozny, where he was desperately trying – and failing – to avert the Russian assault by calling for a ceasefire. We were housed in a former barracks which seemed worryingly vulnerable to Russian air attack. But it soon became evident that the presidential guard’s greatest anxiety was that we would be abducted by Chechen kidnappers and held for ransom. The first Chechen revolt in 1994-96 was seen as a heroic popular struggle for independence. Three years later it had been succeeded by a movement that was highly sectarian, criminalised and dominated by warlords. The war became too dangerous to report and disappeared off the media map. ‘In the first Chechen war,’ one reporter told me, ‘I would have been fired by my agency if I had left Grozny. Now the risk of kidnapping is so great I would be fired for going there.’

(Republished from The London Review of Books by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Middle East 
In a period of failure for many, one man is on the up and up. And he's no friend of the West
🔊 Listen RSS

Who was the most successful leader in the Middle East in 2013? It is a hoary tradition of newspapers and magazines to produce end-of-year league tables listing the successful and the unsuccessful. The results are often anodyne or quirky, but in the Middle East over the past 12 months such an approach has the advantage of cutting through the complexities of half a dozen distinct but inter-related crises by focusing on winners and losers.

In this year of turmoil, a shortlist is not so difficult to draw up, because so many leaders were in more trouble at the end of the year than they were at the beginning. The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for instance, would have been an easy winner in previous years for his undoubted success in ending the era of military coups and for presiding over unprecedented economic prosperity. But in the past few days he has watched the sons of his most powerful ministers being arrested amid accusations of corruption while his maladroit intervention in the Syrian civil war blasted Turkey’s hopes of becoming a regional power. Hubris brought on by three election victories probably explains why Mr Erdogan has lost his touch.

Another contender to top the list of successful leaders in the region in previous years would have been Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Always an under-rated politician internationally, he has been highly successful in manipulating the threat of war to get what he wants while being careful not to fire a shot. His threats to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, always discounted as a well-sustained bluff by this column, led to severe sanctions against Iran and diverted attention from the Palestinians. For all Mr Netanyahu’s denunciations of the interim deal between the US and its allies and Iran, he has not lost much, even if his influence on American policy is diminished.

The most astute and experienced politician in the Middle East is probably the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan Regional Government and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, who has pursued Kurdish self-determination, so far within the context of Iraq, through victory and defeat. His has been an extraordinary career, with abrupt reversals, such as total defeat in 1990 being followed by sudden triumph when the Kurds took advantage of Saddam Hussein’s debacle in Kuwait to seize back their heartlands in Iraq. The KRG is now one of the few places on earth enjoying a genuine economic boom, thanks to the discovery of oil and gas. Mr Barzani has balanced between the US, Iran, Turkey and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad without becoming the pawn or the victim of any of them.

Given the hostility between Turks and Kurds, one of the most remarkable sights of the year was Mr Barzani in full Kurdish uniform standing on a platform with Mr Erdogan in Dyabakir, effectively the Kurdish capital in Turkey, in November and speaking of Kurdish-Turkish brotherhood. Kurdish nationalism is close to winning a degree of autonomy not far from self-determination in Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Unlike other successful leaders, Mr Barzani has a certain modesty and realism that keeps him from overplaying his hand when times are good.

Mr Barzani has had a particularly good year but his outstanding abilities are scarcely news. Less calculable are the achievements of Hassan Rouhani, who won the Iranian presidential election in June on a platform of greater civil rights, an improved economy and a rapprochement with the West. Almost anybody would look good compared with his predecessor, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but Mr Rouhani’s visit to the US was successful and was followed by the interim deal with the P5+1 (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) on the Iranian nuclear programme signed in Geneva on 24 November.

But the deal leaves Mr Rouhani vulnerable because Iran froze and, to some extent, rolled back its nuclear programme in return for very minor concessions on sanctions – perhaps worth as little $6bn – which will make no economic difference to Iran. It may be that the US is now talking so tough to placate Congress and Israel, but if it turns out that Iranian negotiators reached a one-sided agreement that will bring few political or economic benefits to Iran, then the future prospects for Mr Rouhani do not look so bright. It may also be that his domestic opponents – in the Revolutionary Guard Corps and elsewhere – are holding back because they are convinced that the meagreness of his achievements will become apparent. President Obama publicly put the chances for a final agreement at 50:50. The US may believe that, if sanctions have brought Iran so far, further pressure will eliminate for ever its capacity to produce a nuclear device. At this stage the prospects for long-term agreement do not look so good.

But there is one leader in the Middle East who can look back on the achievements of the past year with unmitigated satisfaction. He leads an organisation that was supposedly on its way to extinction or irrelevance three years ago, but today it is an ever more powerful force in the vast triangle of territory in Iraq and Syria between Mosul, Baghdad and the Mediterranean coast.

Unfortunately, the most successful leader in the Middle East this year is surely Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, also known as Abu D’ua, the leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, which changed its name this year to the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (Isis) and claims to be the sole al-Qaida affiliate in Syria as well as Iraq. The US says al-Baghdadi is based in Syria and is offering $10m to anyone who can kill or capture him.

One of the most extraordinary developments in the Middle East is that 12 years after 9/11 and six years after “the surge” in Iraq was supposed to have crushed al-Qa’ida in Iraq, it is back in business. It is taking over its old haunts in northern and central Iraq and is launching attacks on Shia civilians that have killed 9,000 people so far this year. Yesterday it killed a general commanding a division in an ambush in Anbar province. Al-Qa’ida has benefited from the Iraqi government failing to conciliate the Sunni Arab protest movement that began a year ago, with the result that it is mutating into armed resistance. In July, a carefully planned Isis attack on Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad freed 500 prisoners, many of them al-Qa’ida veterans.

Even more spectacular has been the rise of Isis in Syria, where it is the most effective single military group aside from the Syrian Army. It has taken control of Raqqa, the one Syrian provincial capital held by the rebels, and has started killing off leaders of the Western-backed Free Syrian Army that do not come over to its side. Jessica D Lewis, in a study published by the Institute for the Study of War, writes: “AQI [al-Qa'ida in Iraq] in 2013 is an extremely vigorous, resilient and capable organisation that can operate from Basra to coastal Syria.” The resurgence of al-Qa’ida is already a crucial factor in promoting horrific sectarian conflicts in both Iraq and Syria.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Middle East 
Although five people were killed and 10 wounded, police say the casualties would have been far higher if Ayyub Khalaf had not wrapped his arms around the terrorist to shield others from the blast
🔊 Listen RSS

An Iraqi policeman is being remembered as a hero after wrapping his arms around a suicide bomber to shield others from the blast.

The attack in Khalis, a town north-east of Baghdad, killed five and wounded 10 people on a Shia pilgrimage, but police said the casualties would have been far higher if Ayyub Khalaf, who was 34 and married with two children, had not given his life to protect them.

“Ayyub was martyred while defending pilgrims,” his friend Saad Naim told a news agency. “His name will be an eternal symbol because he saved the lives of dozens of innocents. We will take revenge on [the] al-Qa’ida terrorist organisation.”

The bomber was targeting the Arbaeen pilgrimage, in which hundreds of thousands of people walk on foot to the holy city of Kerbala, 55 miles south-west of Baghdad, to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. The pilgrims make an easy target as they walk in family group along the roads or congregate in tents to rest or eat. Another suicide bomber killed 14 and wounded 28 when he blew himself up in a crowd of pilgrims in Dora in south Baghdad.

The massacre of pilgrims is the result of a resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq inflicted by a re-invigorated al-Qa’ida in Iraq organisation, now part of an umbrella group called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Violence has now reached a level not seen since April 2008 with 9,000 people killed so far in 2013, including 595 civilians this month, according to Iraqi Body Count. The victims are mostly Shia. On Wednesday three Pakistani pilgrims were killed and 11 wounded when their bus was machine-gunned between Samarra and Baghdad. And on Monday 82 civilians were killed, 43 of them by bombs in Baghdad and 13 by gunfire in the northern city of Mosul, which is increasingly coming under the control of al-Qa’ida in Iraq.

Al-Qa’ida has grown in strength since extending its reach to Syria in 2012; it now controls significant parts of the country. It can move men and supplies across the Syrian-Iraqi frontier unhindered and has had access to the outside world through Turkey. Al-Qa’ida also has a broad and growing base of sympathisers within the Sunni Arab community in Iraq, which started a protest campaign last December demanding greater political, civil and economic rights. Nouri al-Maliki’s government failed to offer adequate concessions and when the army killed 53 protesters at Hawija in April, peaceful demonstrators switched to armed resistance.

Al-Qa’ida in Iraq may now be as strong as it was in 2006, at the height of its power, before the US-led counter-offensive known as “the surge”. It mainly targets Shia civilians and Sunni militiamen and tribesmen working with the Baghdad government; these Sunni are known collectively as the Sahwa (Awakening). Today gunmen in military uniform broke into the home of a former member of the Sahwa in Abu Ghraib in west Baghdad and killed him, his wife, his two children and his brother-in-law, according to the police.

Government forces, though numerous, have been unable to halt the rise of al-Qa’ida or to stop the large number of suicide bombers. Their response to the recent growth of al-Qa’ida in Iraq has been fragmentary and often consists of punishing entire Sunni districts, which only increases support for armed resistance. The Pentagon estimated that al-Qa’ida had 800 to 1,000 fighters in Iraq in 2011, but that figure is now believed to be far larger.

Equally serious has been the failure to prevent prison escapes by al-Qa’ida in Iraq militants. On 21 July 500 prisoners were freed after an assault on Abu Ghraib prison. In the course of a year eight attacks took place on prisons, two of which were successful. Al-Qa’ida in Iraq has been able to recruit large numbers of suicide bombers leading to almost one suicide bomb attack a day this summer.

The one optimistic note is that there have been no revenge pogroms against Sunni districts by Shia militias, as happened in 2006-7, but that might change if the suicide bombings continue.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq 
From child torture to sarin gas, the security services’ methods have dictated the war
🔊 Listen RSS

Why did Dr Abbas Khan die? Nobody takes seriously the obvious lie that he committed suicide four days before he was to be released from prison. Who gave the orders for his murder? And why?

It would be difficult to think of a more self-destructive act by the security services of the Syrian government and leads to questions about who really holds power in Damascus. Just at the moment when President Assad’s government is seeing the first signs of being reengaged by the US and West Europeans there is an atrocity for which it will be blamed.

Napoleon famously said that battles go to those who make the least mistakes and recently the Syrian opposition has been making more mistakes than the government. Western governments have been appalled to see al-Qa’ida affiliates and equally sectarian Sunni brigades backed by Saudi Arabia assume the dominant role in the rebel military forces. The former US ambassador to Damascus, Ryan Crocker, said there would have to be confidential contacts between the US and the Assad government about how to deal with al-Qa’ida. Exiled opposition members are reportedly being told by Western diplomats that the deposition of President Assad will not be the objective of the peace talks in Geneva on 22 January. Just as Assad’s government wants to give an impression of moderation by releasing Abbas Khan, his death is announced. A PR coup turns into a self-inflicted wound. But in some ways it is not so surprising, though it remains shocking, when one considers the Syrian government’s recent history.

Most striking is the attack with Sarin gas on rebel controlled districts in Damascus for which it is difficult to think of any explanation other than that it was carried out by the Syrian armed forces. It is beyond belief that bands of rebel gunmen would be able to obtain or make the poison gas in quantity and then simultaneously release it different parts of Damascus amid their own supporters and to do this, moreover, without anybody finding out. The use of sarin against civilians might have precipitated foreign and primarily American military intervention. Close air support by the US air force is the one development that might have led to the opposition winning a purely military victory. As well as being a horrific crime the use of poison gas was an act of extraordinary stupidity since it almost led to an American, British and French air assault. Mr Assad was only saved because of the popular determination in the US and Britain not to see a repeat performance of the Iraq and Afghan wars.

Dr Abbas Khan with his son AbdullahDr Abbas Khan with his son Abdullah

In many respects the excessive and self-defeating use of violence by the state has been one of the main motors driving the Syrian civil war from its beginning in 2011. There are deep social and economic frustrations behind the Syrian revolt, but the trigger for explosion of dissent was the arrest and alleged torture of children in Deraa. The head of local security responsible for their mistreatment was not court-martialled. Brutal collective punishment created martyrs, delegitimised the government and ultimately turned peaceful protests into an armed revolt. The government claimed – and probably came to believe – that armed militants were there from the beginning but if the aim of some of the opposition was to provoke the state security forces into an excessive response then they succeeded beyond their dreams.

Power in Syria is in the hands of the Presidency and the security services. The rest of the government scarcely matters in terms of determining security policy. Where else could the prime minister of a country defect and officials smoothly say this did not matter because he had no power? Real power-sharing with the opposition in Syria will have to include deconstructing the security forces.

As the revolt gathered pace in the summer of 2011 the International Crisis Group published a report entitled “The Syrian Regime’s Slow Motion Suicide”. It concluded that “the security services brutal and often erratic performance has created more problems than it has solved, as [their] violence almost certainly has been the primary reason behind the protest-movement’s growth and radicalisation.” The same mindless and uncontrolled violence by the security services probably explains the death of Dr Abbas Khan.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria 
Syrians 'forced to eat cats and dogs' to survive the war as three-quarters of population of 22 million will need aid to survive next year
🔊 Listen RSS

As Syrian society teeters on the edge of final collapse after three years of ferocious warfare and economic devastation, the UN is making its biggest-ever appeal for £4bn in aid to help the country’s starving civilians.

Three-quarters of Syria’s 22.4 million people will need humanitarian aid to survive by 2014, according to a UN study. Bread in some areas costs five times what it was at the start of the conflict, and 80 per cent of Syrians say their greatest fear is shortage of food.

The former Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, who is now chief executive of the relief charity International Rescue, warned that the refugee crisis in Syria is “the biggest humanitarian test of the century” – a test that the international community is failing. The relief effort is being crippled by a lack of funds from donors and increasing danger for relief workers, he said.

Snow is worsening conditions for the 2.4 million Syrian refugees who have fled to Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere, while another four million people have been displaced within Syria.

Doctors are trying to stop a polio epidemic with an emergency immunisation campaign. Whole districts have been rendered uninhabitable by the government bombardment that inevitably follows a rebel takeover in urban and rural districts. Many people inside and outside Syria are reaching the end of their savings after three years in which a lot have been without a job. The violence is still getting worse, sending more people fleeing for safety elsewhere. On Sunday, government air raids, using explosives packed into barrels, killed at least 76 people, including 28 children, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Relief workers said that as many as 50 more people might be trapped under the rubble but they did not have heavy equipment to rescue them.

Meanwhile, the Observatory said that 28 people from the Syrian minorities – in this case believed to be Alawi and Druze – had been killed by rebels in the town of Adra north-west of Damascus.

As the Syrian conflict enters its third year, many parts of the country are besieged and cut off from supplies of food, electric power and water. The UN sent a plane on Sunday from Arbil in Iraqi Kurdistan with food and other supplies for the winter to the Kurds of Hassakeh in north-east Syria – where fighters from among the 2.5 million Syrian Kurd population have been battling against al-Qa’ida-linked affiliates seeking to get possession of the oil wells in the north-east of the country. The flights will bring in 400 tonnes of food and 196kg of medical equipment. There is great variation in the degree of impoverishment, with people in state-controlled areas much better off because they are able to get bread at very low prices from government bakeries – though they often have to queue for a long time.

In central Damascus, Tartous and some other government-held areas it is possible to have a near-normal life. But food bought in the market, such as lamb, cheese, eggs and margarine, have all soared in price because they are not being produced or the roads are too difficult for food supplies to be easily or cheaply transported. Even where people have jobs, salaries have often fallen below £100 a month.

In rebel-held areas the situation is much worse. Food is in short supply and government salaries and pensions, however inadequate, are not being paid. A recent graduate from the University of Damascus, writing for IRIN, the UN news agency, said that there are few doctors in the besieged town of al-Hajar al-Aswad in south Damascus – and those that remain say that mothers are too undernourished to produce breast milk for babies and there is no powdered milk available.

One doctor said adults “are getting by on small amounts of seasonal stocked traditional Syrian foods like olives, thyme and marmalade – and in some cases cats and dogs”. He expected adults to start dying of starvation in the near future.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria 
The West’s favoured faction is on the run, while the Riyadh-backed rebels steadily gain ground
🔊 Listen RSS

The final bankruptcy of American and British policy in Syria came 10 days ago as Islamic Front, a Saudi-backed Sunni jihadi group, overran the headquarters of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) at Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. The FSA, along with the Syrian National Coalition, groups that the United States and Britain have been pretending for years are at the heart of Syrian military and political opposition, has been discredited. The remaining FSA fighters are in flight, have changed sides, or are devoting all their efforts to surviving the onslaught from jihadi or al-Qa’ida-linked brigades.

The US and Britain stopped the delivery of non-lethal aid to the supply depot at Bab al-Hawa as the implications of the disaster sank in. The West’s favourite rebel commander, General Salim Idris, was on the run between Turkey and his former chief supporter and paymaster, Qatar. Turkey closed the border, the other side of which is now controlled by the Islamic Front. The so-called moderate wing of the Syrian insurgency has very limited influence, but its representatives are still being urged by Washington and London to attend the peace conference in Geneva on 22 January to negotiate Bashar al-Assad’s departure from power.

Confusion over what is happening is so great that Western leaders may not pay as much of a political price at home as they should for the failure of their Syrian policy. But it is worth recalling that the Syrian National Coalition and the FSA are the same people for whom the US and UK almost went to war in August, and saw as candidates to replace Assad in power in Damascus. The recent debacle shows how right public opinion in both countries was to reject military intervention.

Who are the winners in the new situation? One is Assad because the opposition to him – which started as a popular uprising against a cruel, corrupt and oppressive dictatorship in 2011 – has become a fragmented movement dominated by al-Qa’ida umbrella organisation the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil); the other al-Qa’ida franchisee, the al-Nusra Front; and the Islamic Front, consisting of six or seven large rebel military formations numbering an estimated 50,000 fighters, whose uniting factor is Saudi money and an extreme Sunni ideology similar to Saudi Arabia’s version of Islam.

The Saudis see this alliance as capable of fighting pro-Assad forces as well as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, but Riyadh’s objections to the latter appears to be based on its independence of Saudi control rather than revulsion at its record of slaughtering Shia, Alawi, Christians, Armenians, Kurds, Turkomans or any dissenting Sunni.

The allegation of Saudi control is becoming easier to substantiate. Until a year ago, the Saudis stayed somewhat in the background when it came to funding the Syrian rebels, in which the leading role was played by Qatar in association with Turkey. But the failure of the rebels to win and US anger that the Qataris and Turks had allowed much of the aid to go to jihadis led to an important change this summer, when Saudi Arabia took over from Qatar as chief supporter of the rebels.

An interesting example of just how hands-on this Saudi direction has become is illustrated by a fascinating interview given by a top defector from the FSA to Isil, Saddam al-Jamal. Commander of the Liwa Allah Akbar battalion, he was until recently the top FSA commander in eastern Syria, much of which is under rebel control. He recalls that “we used to meet with the apostates of Qatar and Saudi Arabia and with the infidels of Western nations such as America and France in order to receive arms and ammo or cash”. He says Western intelligence operatives had of late been worried about the growing influence of al-Qa’ida affiliates and repeatedly asked him why he was growing a beard.

Jamal gives an account of a recent three-day meeting between the FSA commanders from northern and eastern Syria with Western, Saudi, Qatari, Emirati and Jordanian intelligence operatives. This appears to have been soon after the Saudis took over the Syria file from the Qataris. He says the FSA commanders, including General Idris, had a meeting with Prince Salman bin Sultan, the Saudi deputy defence minister who was the leading figure at the meeting. Jamal says that Prince Salman “asked those who had plans to attack Assad positions to present their needs for arms, ammo and money”.

The picture that Mr Jamal paints is of an FSA that was a complete pawn to foreign intelligence agencies, which is one reason why he defected. The Saudis subsequently decided that the FSA would not serve their purposes, and were frustrated by America backing away from war in Syria and confrontation with Iran. They set about using their limitless funds to attract into alliances rebel brigades such as the Islamic Front which would be Sunni fundamentalist, committed to the overthrow of Assad, against political negotiations, but distinct from al-Qa’ida. In reality, it looks highly unlikely that Saudi money will be enough to bring down or even significantly weaken Assad though it may be enough to keep a war going for years.

The old, supposedly moderate, opposition has been marginalised. Its plan since 2011 has been to force a full-scale Western military intervention as in Libya in 2011 and, when this did not happen, they lacked an alternative strategy.

The US, Britain and France do not have many options left except to try to control the jihadi Frankenstein’s monster that they helped create in Syria and which is already helping destabilise Iraq and Lebanon. Turkey may soon regret having given free passage to so many jihadi on their way to Syria. Ankara could close its 500-mile border with Syria or filter those who cross it. But Turkish policy in Syria and Iraq has been so dysfunctional in the past three years that it may be too late to correct the consequences of wrongly convincing itself that Assad would fall.

The Geneva II peace conference on Syria looks as if it will be born dead. In so far as the FSA and its civilian counterparts ever repres-ented anyone in Syria they do so no longer. The armed opposition is dominated by Saudi-sponsored Islamist brigades on the one hand and by al-Qa’ida affiliates on the other. All US, British and French miscalculations have produced in Syria is a re-run of Afghanistan in the 1980s, creating a situation the ruinous consequences of which have yet to appear. As jihadis in Syria realise they are not going to win, they may well look for targets closer to home.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria 
🔊 Listen RSS

Britain and America’s decision to suspend deliveries of non-lethal aid to Islamist rebels operating in northern Syria came after fighters from the Islamic Front drove the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) out of bases and warehouses contained American-supplied equipment in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib.

The significance of the British and American action is that it underlines their disillusionment with the Syrian rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, whom they once lauded as the future rulers of Syria. Washington and London have been trying to target aid to groups opposed to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the umbrella group for al-Qa’ida in Iraq and Syria, and the al-Nusra Front, another extreme jihadi Sunni military organisation.

In this case Britain and US are moving against the Islamic Front, an alliance of leading rebel groups including Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Haq, Ansar al-Sham and the Kurdish Islamic Front, set up last month and with good relations with the al-Nusra Front. Its precise links to Saudi Arabia are unclear, but the Saudis have started to take a stronger leadership role in funding Syrian rebels since last summer, replacing Qatar which previously cooperated with Turkey in supporting the insurgency in Syria.

Saudi willingness to spend seemingly limitless funds and the creation of the Islamic Front has inevitably weakened the FSA’s Supreme Military Council and the Western-backed National Coalition, and is likely to increase fragmentation and extremism among rebels inside and outside Syria.

Louay Meqdad, a spokesperson for the FSA, said the move by the US and Britain was rushed and mistaken. “We hope our friends will rethink and wait for a few days when things will be clearer,” he said.

American intelligence officials estimate that there are 1,200 rebel military units ranging from groups based on extended families to those able to field several thousand fighters. Although opposed to ISIL, the Islamic Front is avowedly Sunni and sectarian in its orientation and opposed to a political solution of the civil war.

An important development in recent weeks in Syria has been the divergence between Saudi and American policy aims as a result of Saudi frustration that President Obama did not launch a military attack on Syria as after pro-Assad forces apparently used chemical weapons on a mass scale in Damascus on 21 August. In practice, this means that the Washington does not want to see Mr Assad replaced in the short term and one senior former US diplomat has called for confidential talks with the government in Damascus on combating al-Qa’ida linked groups.

Saudi impatience with US policy was further exacerbated by the interim deal last month between a US-led delegation and Iran on limiting Iran’s nuclear programme. But it is doubtful if Saudi Arabia can truly adopt and stick with a separate policy from the US in Syria in which it funds a Sunni army 40,000 to 50,000 strong that is hostile to both al-Qa’ida linked movements and to Mr Assad. Belief that these groups are essentially warlords on the Saudi payroll is unlikely to increase their appeal to Syrian nationalists or to jihadis.

Saudi Arabia might be able to keep the war going in Syria but neither the rebels nor Mr Assad can win a decisive victory. The Syrian Army has recently succeeded in clearing the main Damascus to Homs road and are advancing on the town of Yabrud which is a notorious rebel strongpoint to the west of the main road in foothills of the Qalamoun Mountains.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Syria 
Everyone knows where al-Qa'ida gets its money, but while the violence is sectarian, the West does nothing
🔊 Listen RSS

Donors in Saudi Arabia have notoriously played a pivotal role in creating and maintaining Sunni jihadist groups over the past 30 years. But, for all the supposed determination of the United States and its allies since 9/11 to fight “the war on terror”, they have showed astonishing restraint when it comes to pressuring Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies to turn off the financial tap that keeps the jihadists in business.

Compare two US pronouncements stressing the significance of these donations and basing their conclusions on the best intelligence available to the US government. The first is in the 9/11 Commission Report which found that Osama bin Laden did not fund al-Qa’ida because from 1994 he had little money of his own but relied on his ties to wealthy Saudi individuals established during the Afghan war in the 1980s. Quoting, among other sources, a CIA analytic report dated 14 November 2002, the commission concluded that “al-Qa’ida appears to have relied on a core group of financial facilitators who raised money from a variety of donors and other fund-raisers primarily in the Gulf countries and particularly in Saudi Arabia”.

Seven years pass after the CIA report was written during which the US invades Iraq fighting, among others, the newly established Iraq franchise of al-Qa’ida, and becomes engaged in a bloody war in Afghanistan with the resurgent Taliban. American drones are fired at supposed al-Qa’ida-linked targets located everywhere from Waziristan in north-west Pakistan to the hill villages of Yemen. But during this time Washington can manage no more than a few gentle reproofs to Saudi Arabia on its promotion of fanatical and sectarian Sunni militancy outside its own borders.

Evidence for this is a fascinating telegram on “terrorist finance” from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to US embassies, dated 30 December 2009 and released by WikiLeaks the following year. She says firmly that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”. Eight years after 9/11, when 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis, Mrs Clinton reiterates in the same message that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support for al-Qa’ida, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan] and other terrorist groups”. Saudi Arabia was most important in sustaining these groups, but it was not quite alone since “al-Qa’ida and other groups continue to exploit Kuwait both as a source of funds and as a key transit point”.

Why did the US and its European allies treat Saudi Arabia with such restraint when the kingdom was so central to al-Qa’ida and other even more sectarian Sunni jihadist organisations? An obvious explanation is that the US, Britain and others did not want to offend a close ally and that the Saudi royal family had judiciously used its money to buy its way into the international ruling class. Unconvincing attempts were made to link Iran and Iraq to al-Qa’ida when the real culprits were in plain sight.

But there is another compelling reason why the Western powers have been so laggard in denouncing Saudi Arabia and the Sunni rulers of the Gulf for spreading bigotry and religious hate. Al-Qa’ida members or al-Qa’ida-influenced groups have always held two very different views about who is their main opponent. For Osama bin Laden the chief enemy was the Americans, but for the great majority of Sunni jihadists, including the al-Qa’ida franchises in Iraq and Syria, the target is the Shia. It is the Shia who have been dying in their thousands in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and even in countries where there are few of them to kill, such as Egypt.

Pakistani papers no longer pay much attention to hundreds of Shia butchered from Quetta to Lahore. In Iraq, most of the 7,000 or more people killed this year are Shia civilians killed by the bombs of al-Qa’ida in Iraq, part of an umbrella organisation called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), which also encompasses Syria. In overwhelmingly Sunni Libya, militants in the eastern town of Derna killed an Iraqi professor who admitted on video to being a Shia before being executed by his captors.

Suppose a hundredth part of this merciless onslaught had been directed against Western targets rather than against Shia Muslims, would the Americans and the British be so accommodating to the Saudis, Kuwaitis and Emiratis? It is this that gives a sense of phoniness to boasts by the vastly expanded security bureaucracies in Washington and London about their success in combating terror justifying vast budgets for themselves and restricted civil liberties for everybody else. All the drones in the world fired into Pashtun villages in Pakistan or their counterparts in Yemen or Somalia are not going to make much difference if the Sunni jihadists in Iraq and Syria ever decide – as Osama bin Laden did before them – that their main enemies are to be found not among the Shia but in the United States and Britain.

Instead of the fumbling amateur efforts of the shoe and underpants bombers, security services would have to face jihadist movements in Iraq, Syria and Libya fielding hundreds of bomb-makers and suicide bombers. Only gradually this year, videos from Syria of non-Sunnis being decapitated for sectarian motives alone have begun to shake the basic indifference of the Western powers to Sunni jihadism so long as it is not directed against themselves.

Saudi Arabia as a government for a long time took a back seat to Qatar in funding rebels in Syria, and it is only since this summer that they have taken over the file. They wish to marginalise the al-Qa’ida franchisees such as Isil and the al-Nusra Front while buying up and arming enough Sunni war-bands to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

The directors of Saudi policy in Syria – the Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, the head of the Saudi intelligence agency Prince Bandar bin Sultan and the Deputy Defence Minister Prince Salman bin Sultan – plan to spend billions raising a militant Sunni army some 40,000 to 50,000 strong. Already local warlords are uniting to share in Saudi largesse for which their enthusiasm is probably greater than their willingness to fight.

The Saudi initiative is partly fuelled by rage in Riyadh at President Obama’s decision not to go to war with Syria after Assad used chemical weapons on 21 August. Nothing but an all-out air attack by the US similar to that of Nato in Libya in 2011 would overthrow Assad, so the US has essentially decided he will stay for the moment. Saudi anger has been further exacerbated by the successful US-led negotiations on an interim deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.

By stepping out of the shadows in Syria, the Saudis are probably making a mistake. Their money will only buy them so much. The artificial unity of rebel groups with their hands out for Saudi money is not going to last. They will be discredited in the eyes of more fanatical jihadis as well as Syrians in general as pawns of Saudi and other intelligence services.

A divided opposition will be even more fragmented. Jordan may accommodate the Saudis and a multitude of foreign intelligence services, but it will not want to be the rallying point for an anti-Assad army.

The Saudi plan looks doomed from the start, though it could get a lot more Syrians killed before it fails. Yazid Sayegh of the Carnegie Middle East Centre highlights succinctly the risks involved in the venture: “Saudi Arabia could find itself replicating its experience in Afghanistan, where it built up disparate mujahedin groups that lacked a unifying political framework. The forces were left unable to govern Kabul once they took it, paving the way for the Taliban to take over. Al-Qa’ida followed, and the blowback subsequently reached Saudi Arabia.”

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Saudi Arabia, Terrorism 
No Items Found
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.


Personal Classics
Full Story of the Taliban's Amazing Jailbreak
"They Can't Even Protect Themselves, So What Can They Do For Me?"
"All Hell is Breaking Loose with Muqtada" Warlord: the Rise of Muqtada al-Sadr