William Morris and Lina Kay discuss the many issues plaguing the Middle East presently. Issues discussed include: Yemen, Libya, Iran, the UN and the USA (with Arabic subtitles).
Well it seems we have fallen into the pit as far as our failed Afghanistan project is concerned. It failed from the start really when we, the Western powers, put a gun to the head of the Afghan King that fateful evening to force him to step aside in favour of our pet Hamid Karzai. Then President Karzai empowered the ex-warlords and Afghanistan never got the liberation it deserved from years of brutal Taliban rule. And now, after the sacrifice of all that blood and treasure we are to let the Taliban rule again.
The following is the text of the peace agreement just reached in Qatar between the Afghan government and an assorted bunch of Talibanista who claim to represent the Taliban fighting on the ground. Whether they do is another issue. This document would be desperately depressing were it not for the fact that it is brought to our attention by one of the more senior Afghan members of the Next Century Foundation, HRH Prince Nadir Naim. If Prince Nadir thinks this document is a way forward then we trust him and will support it wholeheartedly. Sometimes, in the darkest hours, we have a duty to hope against hope. At this moment in Afghanistan’s history that is our duty. So we hope that this will work.
HRH Prince Nadir writes, “My dear friends, We are heading back to Kabul after 2 days of intense dialogue Intra-Afghan with the Taliban regarding the Afghan peace process. The participants in this dialogue consisted of 18 Taliban members and just over forty Afghans including some government officials. All the participants attended in their own personal capacity and were not representative of any political groups or organizations.
“This is the joint statement that all the participants agreed upon. We hope that this is a positive step in the right direction to a permanent and dignified peace in our beloved Afghanistan:
Resolution of Intra Afghan Peace Conference
We, the participants of the Conference hereby appreciate, thank and value the
efforts of Qatar and German Government for organizing Intra Afghan Peace
Conference held on 7 and 8 July 2019 in Doha Qatar and express our deepest
We express our greatest gratitude from the United Nations, Regional Countries,
particularly, countries who have facilitated the negotiations for USA and intra
afghan peace conference and have taken necessary steps towards the conflict
resolution. We are hoping that these parties will continue their support in a way
that will benefit our country and the nation and result into a real and desirable
From our point of view, dialogue and agreement assists us to reach an
understanding concerning our present and future, be able to tackle the barriers
and obstacles as well as understand each other. Therefore, all participants insist
and emphasis on the continuation of the dialogue.
We the participants of the Doha conference hereby agree on the following points
to reach a sustainable peace.
1. All participants have full consensus that achieving sustainable, throughout
and a dignified peace which is the demand of the afghan people, is only
possible via afghan Inclusive negotiations
2. Afghanistan is a united, Islamic Country and home for all different
ethnicities. Islamic Sovereignty, social and political justice, national unity,
territorial sovereignty, which all Afghans are committed upon.
3. Throughout the history, particularly during the last 40 years, the Afghan
people have defended their religions, country, and culture and sacrificed
immensely for their independent. Afghanistan shall not be the witness of
another war in the country and intra Afghan agreement between different
levels of the society is vital and crucial. All International Community,
regional and internal elements shall respect out values accordingly.
4. Since our nation is suffering daily due to on going prolonged war and its
therefore, necessary that the following steps are needed to be taken so
that we can have an effective Intra Afghan negotiation.
a. The conflict parties shall avoid threats, revenges and conflicting
words, shall use soft terminologies and words during their official
gatherings, and shall not fuel the conflict and revenge.
b. The Doha peace conference participants strongly supports the
current peace talks in doha and believes that an effective and
positive outcome from the negotiations will be fruitful for
5. The following steps shall be taken to create trustable environment for
peace and in order to have our nation safe from the war and its
consequences, violence and devastation shall be decreased: the conflict
parties shall consider these measures.
a. unconditional release of elders, disables and sick inmates.
b. Ensuring the security of public institutions, such as schools,
Religious Madrassas, hospitals, markets, water dams and other
c. In particular, respect educational institutions, like schools,
universities, and other educational institutions as well residential
d. Committed to respect and protect the dignity of people, their life
and property and to minimize the civilian casualties to Zero.
6. Assuring women rights in political, social, economic, educational, cultural
affairs as per within the Islamic framework of Islamic Values.
7. Assuring the rights of religious minorities.
8. The participants of Doha conference agrees on a roadmap for peace based
on the following conditions:
a. institutionalizing Islamic system in the country for the
implementation of comprehensive peace,
b. Start of the peace process simultaneously with the accomplishment
of all terms and conditions set forth.
c. monitoring and observation of the peace agreement,
d. Reform in the preservation of fundamental institutions, defensive
and other national entities which belongs to all Afghans,
e. repatriation of immigrants and return of IDPs,
f. support and assistance from donor countries post peace agreement
based on the new cooperation and relations,
g. Insist during international conferences regarding the assurance of
Afghanistan peace agreement.
h. Assurance on zero interference from the neighboring and regional
countries in Afghanistan.
9. We acknowledge and approve the recent resolution of intra Afghan
conference held on 5 and 6 Feb 2019 in Moscow and we urge the Islamic
Conference, UN, Security council, EU and our neighboring countries to
support the peace conferences held in Moscow and Doha.
MAY ALLAH GRANT US SUCCESS IN OUR FUTURE ENDEVOURS
Our intern Abubakar Ado Jibrin in Nigeria writes of the latest developments in his country as follows:
Democracies differ. The recent election in Nigeria gave the incumbent “Muhammadu Buhari” a second tenure, with a duration of four years. The election was full of uncertainty and a brilliantly conducted malpractice that is difficult to examine, but some sources have argued that those international observers that were present, including those affiliated to the British government, had not closely examined the real happenings in southern Nigeria during the presidential election exercise.
Military personnel disrupted the election in southern part and in the south western region, in Lagos in particular the home town of the vice president Yemi Osibanjo and the home town of ruling party top elite, such as Ahmed Bola Tinubu. Political thugs were seen carrying election boxes in the street and these factors have put a question mark with regard to organizing a free and fair transition which could only be obtain through a well manage and organised election exercise.
Also in Lagos, in areas that are believed to be Igbo majority, thugs were burning ballot papers to block the Igbo natives (where the running mate of PDP presidential candidate is from).
The election was so full of imbalance and unfair status that the PDP filed a case to the election tribunal to set the result aside, and the tribunal has called for scrutiny of the election result from the Independent electoral body data base so as to obtain the actual scores made by the two contestants.
In my opinion, the high level of illiteracy was a major factor in contributing to a lack of discernment as to who will best make Nigeria what she should be, no longer a paper giant in Africa but a realistic and visible rising economy.
The non participation of Next Century Foundation and other NGOs as election observers, has meant that there were vast areas uncovered which became election malpractice areas. This has resulted in the rebirth of a questionable government and we don’t know when our voice will be heard for free and fair elections. Elections should pave ways for transition and transition brings about social change for the betterment of the populace.
Our new intern Abubakar Ado Jibrin in Nigeria writes of the latest developments in his country as follows:
As we were just about entering zero hour, it was announced on both printed and non printed media outlets that yesterday’s 16th presidential and upper and lower Senate house has been postponed until next Saturday.
This was decision was aired after a joint stakeholders meeting held by the chairman of the independent electoral body at Abuja.
The president was interviewed by a white foreign journalist with regards to what has led to the postponement of the election.
The president lamented that election sensitive materials where delayed from reaching the polling station; he argued that the excuse was not worthy of the postponement.
But from the other perspective we heard from the pro Atiku, that it was clear that if the election had been held yesterday, the chances of the incumbent being the one to loose in the the race were obvious.
That they just held to an unworthy claim of not distributing electoral material in due time.
Having said which, it is important to point out that some decisions are taken without the consent of the president, possibly to promote the self centred interest of elites in the ruling party.
It could said that the independent electoral body does not have the technical know how to organize an election in a terrain that is so divided along so many ideological lines.
Conclusively, the common Nigerian will now have less or no trust in the credibility of the independent electoral body.
As regards the issues in this now postponed election, the nature of Nigeria’s political terrain makes it difficult to give a clear direction with regards to the possible outcome of the election between incumbent retired general Muhammadu Buhari of the APC ruling party and Alhaji Stiku Abubakar of the PDP.
It is good to understand that Buhari’s regime is dysfunctional, since does little more than cut down the rate of insurgency in the North Eastern Nigeria border with Niger, Cameron and Chad.
But the regime has an immense record of allowing for general insecurity amidst Nigerians, which has generated tension and fear.
This condition has dragged Nigeria to almost the state of nature which was proposed by John Hobbs. Where there is no art, no letter no maritime, no law, man chasing man.
The issue is one of human kidnapping for ransom, armed robbery on highways, massive corruption within top government officials, partially those associate to the ruling regime, political thuggery and many more irregularities and incompetence by the APC ruling party.
On the other hand, Atiku who is contesting with the incumbent, has been accused of corrupt practices from 1999 to 2007 when he served as a vice president to Olusegun Obasanjo.
The one million dollars question is that this is a race between the devil and the deep blue sea.
This current regime depends on the ignorance of people, particularly Northern people where Buhari hails from, and the support of the south west where Osibanjo the vice president comes from.
Mohamad Tawam, Director of Arab London Center for Political Studies and Middle Eastern Affairs, has authored this article. The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of the NCF:
Turkey has supported armed groups opposed to the Syrian government since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, The perception of many is that the prime Turkish purpose in so doing has been the establishment of a new Ottoman Empire, with the Muslim Brotherhood as its centrepiece.
But Turkey’s attempt to enhance the authority of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has failed. Turkey has rowed back on her ambitions. Turkey now claims its interventions in Syria are defensive, specifically to deal with Syria’s Kurdish separatists, the existence of which, Turkey claims, is threatening the territorial integrity of Turkey.
However, this Turkish claim is not in line with Turkish conduct in the field. Observe Turkish field movements and the Turkish positions in Syria and you cannot help but conclude that Turkey has its own project in Syria and is looking for opportunities to implement it regardless of any position it is publicly committed to it.
Turkey still has ambitions to redraw the borders separating it from Iraq and Syria. The Turks would like to redraw the maps of the three countries so as to allow Turkey to annex the area from southern Mosul to al-Raqqa to the south of Aleppo and to Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur. Turkey’s intention is to redistribute the population in this area and then establish a system of governance and control based on the concept of administrative decentralization and connect the region with the Turkish decision-makers in Ankara. Turkey is intensifying its intervention and is warning that it will not leave Syria until after the Syrian elections.
That is why we see the Turkish position fluctuating. Turkey’s real intention is merely to gain the time needed to implement its own project.
Which begs the question: Can Turkey implement its project and will it succeed in occupying the land to the North East of the Euphrates as it threatens?
There are three key players in the area Turkey now wishes to control: America and the Kurds and ISIS, whilst those affected by the Turkish project, other than of course the central Syrian state, are the Syrian people resident in that region, both Arabs and Kurds.
So what result can we expect of this Turkish project? And what are the ambitions of those affected?
We start with America, whose troops are currently still present on Syrian soil. Prior to President Trump’s recent hasty and perhaps rash announcement that he would withdraw those troops, they were implementing two goals for the eastern Euphrates region:
First they were supporting the Kurdish forces in their separatist project in Syria. Their stated strategy was that the presence of US troops and their support for the Kurds was largely to fight ISIS.
And the second strategic objective was to cut off the land link between the East, i.e. Iran, and the West, i.e. Syria and Lebanon.
However, this strategy undermined Turkish objectives, especially in the case of the Kurds, whose presence in Syria as a fighting force Turkey rejects, particularly on their borders and describes them as terrorists. This in part because Turkey views their leadership as allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is based in Turkey and Turkey sees as a threat to its security.
Had President Trump not decided to withdraw his troops, this conflict conflict of interest might have meant a confrontation between the US and Turkish forces if Turkey had invaded the remaining area of Syria under Kurdish control.
And yet Turkey has been and remains an ally of America before and after the Kurds. If America finds that the Turkish presence will secure its strategic interests in Syria, it will not need to protect the Kurds in the entire region, a problem of itself because the USA’s widespread deployment in the Middle East requires the use of military bases in Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and US support for the Kurds will not help to reassure the Arab population in the Euphrates region who reject Kurdish rule.
Therefore, the most the United States can do in the face of the threat of Turkish invasion is to put pressure on the Turks to prevent it, and prevent its success, and then to protect the withdrawal of the Kurds to their densely populated heartlands, which do not exceed 10% of the area they now control with American support. This would stop America sliding into war with Turkey.
America could then humour both the Kurdish and Turkish parties and maintain its alliance relations with them.
As for the position of the Kurds in the face of the potential Turkish invasion, they do not the capacity to protect the areas they now control. To do so they would need a military force ten times the strength of the one they possess today. If the Kurds think that America will fight Turkey for them, they are labour under an illusion.
The call of some Kurds to the Syrian government to intervene in order to save them may be a mistake. The Kurds are committed to a separatist project in Syria and therefore it makes no sense for the Syrian government to intervene to protect their project.
As regards ISIS, Turkey will not risk entering the rest of the small areas controlled by ISIS in the east of Syria on the border with Iraq. So Turkey, which from the beginning worked in secret with ISIS in Syria, will ensure that ISIS will not be affected by any Turkish invasion.
Therefore, Turkey may see this moment as an opportunity to implement its threat to take control of much of Northern Syria based on its perception that the three parties that control East Euphrates do not have the will to confront Turkey.
If there is an obstacle that prevents or delays Turkey’s attack, it may be that the EU has asked Turkey not to carry out the threat. Or, as both Iran and Russia confirm, that the Turkish operation, if implemented, would be contrary to the understandings reached in Astana.
But the big surprise is the decision of the United States of America to withdraw all its military forces stationed in Syria in a decision announced by President Donald Trump in his twitter.
The withdrawal of US military from Syria is expected to end within a period of 60 to 100 days. This decision was taken by US President Donald Trump, after his telephone conversations with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which took place amid Turkey’s readiness to launch a third military operation In Syria targeting Kurdish insurgents in the east of the Euphrates.
Which means that Turkey may go on a “limited” invasion of the north-east of the Euphrates in a process that will not embarrass the American forces, which will be re-positioned to serve the Turkish targets, while the Kurds will find themselves alone in the field and will return to areas determined by the Americans.
But what is the position of the Syrian government in this regard?
The Syrian government sees every unsanctioned military presence on Syrian soil as an illegal presence, if that presence is not in response to a request from Syria or with its consent. Therefore, the four mentioned above are considered, for the Syrian government, to be an aggressor, an occupier, an outlaw, a terrorist or a separatist.
I believe that the Syrian government is sticking to its list of priorities to liberate Idlib from the armed terrorist groups with Al- Nusra Front first, and to monitor what is going on in the north-east. Turkey will find that its occupation of additional territory will not make it a partner or a friend of Syrian people in the future, and therefore the Turkish invasion would be a reckless leap without practical outcome.
Will Turkey do it? Let’s wait and see.
The recent execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, among others, and the ‘predictable’ regional reaction risks enforcing ideas of primordial battle between Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Shi’i dominated Iran. While the executions cannot be excused, condemnation without understanding the rationale behind the executions is ‘futile’. If we restrict our understanding of the executions to sectarian narratives we risk stereotyping a more complex political reality.
In order to understand why Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was executed in early January – a move which Saudi policy-makers must have known would aggravate regional tensions – analysts should try to understand Saudi Arabia’s behaviour in its wider and deeper context. Others have written of the wider context; of Saudi anxiety regarding terrorism, US withdrawal and Iranian re-integration into the international system. The deeper context, which seeks to understand the domestic policy pressures on foreign policy, has been less explored.
The Political Economy of Sectarianism
Over the past two weeks, the UK press has been increasingly interested with Saudi Arabia’s so-called National Transformation Plan. Driven by the Deputy Crown Prince, this is designed to diversify the Kingdom’s economy away from over-reliance on the oil sector. Indeed, the Deputy Crown Prince was reported to have said that the recent IPO of ARAMCO (the Kingdom’s formerly nationally-owned oil company) was undertaken in order to encourage foreign investment and private sector development. This is needed; Saudi Arabia, like many other countries in the region, is struggling with a bloated public sector, mass youth unemployment and limited foreign investment. The centre-piece of the reforms is the reduction of subsidies on fuel and water, which have both been heavily subsidised in the past. As the government seeks to balance the budget and develop a sustainable economy, it has to increase its citizens’ expenses.
Without analysing (problematic) theories “rentier state mentalities”, it should be clear that removing subsidies and enacting sweeping economic reforms is difficult in the best of times. Given the recent memory of the 2011 protests in the Kingdom and further afield, the transition begins to look even more worrisome. Added to this, the pace of the reforms already undertaken is staggering. Some of the Prince’s critics (of which there are many) have labelled him ‘reckless’.
This ‘reckless’ Prince – a man the German foreign intelligence agency BND labelled as impulsive and overly-ambitious – is similarly linked to the Saudi-led war in Yemen. Intriguingly, the link between his position as a driver of economic reform and as a defender against “Iranian meddling” has often been overlooked.
Analysts overlook this connection at our peril. It is possible that the Deputy Crown Prince has stoked sectarian tensions to ease the passage of his own reforms. Saudi elites have built on a narrative of “security” in recent years. They have tried to provide security in a tumultuous region. Saudi citizens, in turn, are supposed to be grateful for this security, which, the logic goes, limits calls for popular protest against the ruling family. By executing a Shi’i cleric (who was relatively obscure before his execution), Saudi policy-makers sought to revive the Saudi-Iran rivalry as a way to enact economic reforms somewhat “under the radar”. Of course, the executions also served to send a message to any “would-be” dissidents that rebellion, in whatever guise, will not be tolerated. It is certainly a dangerous game to play.
The Danger of Sectarian Narratives
However, if we accept that the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr – alongside Sunni dissidents, it should be remembered – was not driven by sectarian hatred, then perhaps we can move past overbearing religious narratives. The danger of these narratives is that they suggest that tensions in the Middle East are “primordial” and that there is no role for the international community in mediating humanitarian disasters and war.
This narrative should be challenged. Indeed, the current Saudi-Iran situation presents an opportunity for international – and perhaps EU – mediation between these two regional hegemons, both of which will be required at any diplomatic meeting over Syria or Yemen. By understanding Sheikh Nimr’s execution as part of a wider and deeper political context, policy-makers can create a non-sectarian space in which the UK can engage critically – but constructively – with Saudi Arabia and Iran.
On Thursday 26th November, David Cameron set out his arguments in favour of extending RAF air strikes to Syria. The primary reasons for this extension were the defence of British citizens and the need to stand with our allies in the wake of the Paris attacks.
However, bombing already-bombed cities and supply routes will not defeat Islamic State or make British citizens safer. Similarly, killing more Syrians is not meaningful support for France. Rather Britain should invest its energies in working towards a new strategy in the so-called War on Terror. Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are surely testament to the fact that the current strategy of military intervention has not worked.
A decision to “not bomb” Syria does not mean we are ‘sub-contracting our defence to our allies’. It should symbolise that we are actively seeking new paradigms with which to protect ourselves, our allies, and the innocent people all-too-often caught up in terrorist attacks.
Islamic State is suffering from military setbacks. However, without a new paradigm, military intervention will not bring lasting peace and has little value besides symbolic support for Britain’s (Western) allies.
A Bombing Campaign Won’t Work
In the first instance, extending air strikes into Syria will not ‘work’. Mr Cameron made clear that his objective to is to ‘degrade ISIL and to disrupt the threat it poses to UK’. These are two distinct aims, and military intervention in Syria would achieve neither.
Islamic State militants in Iraq have withstood British and Coalition bombing for over a year. They have been curiously resilient. Part of the reason for this seems to be that Islamic State fighters have dug a network of tunnels underneath their strongholds. These tunnels protect fighters from bombing raids, and yet are not open to civilians. There is a real risk of collateral damage for limited military gain.
Of course, Mr Cameron accepts that airstrikes alone are not enough to defeat Islamic State, and his plan rests on the presence of so-called ‘moderate’ ground forces. In Mr Cameron’s view, there are 70,000 Free Syrian Army fighters still ready to pounce on any weakness shown by IS. Let us be clear. There is no independent Free Syrian Army; the former UK Ambassador to Syria has labelled the plan ‘laughable’. There is no ‘moderate’ force on the ground, so we must ask, where will the ground troops required come from? The Kurds, remarkably successful in defending their own land, have shown no signs that they are prepared to go on the offensive outside of their own lands and are themselves divided by political rivalries. Assad’s forces remain a significant military adversary to Islamic State, yet Britain should resist covert alliances with the embattled premier. Such hypocrisy would undermine Britain’s place in the world far more than taking the time to consider the effect of bombing Syria.
There is No Plan for the Future of Syria in the Current Proposals
On a related note, Mr Cameron has not advanced a suitable plan for the future of Syria. Rather, he vaguely asserted that he would work with the ‘international community’ – a community with significantly different objectives for the outcome of the Syrian war – to rebuild the country.
Cameron has hinted that the Kurds have an important role to play in the future of Syria. Alarmingly, this suggests that Britain understands this conflict in ethnic and sectarian terms – much as we did in Iraq in 2003. In the absence of a detailed outline of his idea of a post-conflict Syria, we might therefore assume that Cameron would work towards giving the Kurds significant autonomy (a move sure to impact Turkey). Syria under this model could see a similar ‘federal’ model to that already in place (and failing) in Iraq.
If Britain engage in bombing runs against Islamic State Mr Cameron must then fully accept a key role in the future of Syria. Our allies in Iraq (much of the Shi’i dominated government) and tribal leaders from Afghanistan have complained that Britain left these countries when it was no longer politically convenient for Britain to stay. In a recent talk at Chatham House, the former Qatari Prime Minister raised similar concerns regarding a US withdrawal. The reconstruction of Syria is the challenge of this generation, and it needs a generation’s commitment.
Of course, Britain has a role to play in this reconstruction. As it stands though, there is no coherent plan for what this role would be, what the level of our long-term involvement would be, and what a post-Assad Syria would look like. The tactic of ‘bomb first, ask questions later’ has led to disaster to Afghanistan, Iraq and, most pertinently, Libya. Let us consider these examples before we rush to bomb more Middle Eastern countries.
Protecting British Citizens
It should be clear then, that on a practical note the ‘plan’ for going to war in Syria is worryingly incomplete. More to the point, the inevitable link between the Paris attacks and the renewed vigour for war (let us not forget that MPs voted against intervention in Syria in 2013) is dangerous. The mistake in linking them together too closely primarily lies in a misunderstanding of transnational terror.
Islamic State should be conceptualised as a network. Recent research has shown that 75% of its members were recruited by friends. As a transnational network with constantly evolving power structures, it is far too flexible to be ‘degraded’ by simply bombing Syrian cities. Islamic State members are independent actors who have varying levels of connection to a central power structure. With the little we know about the hierarchy of power in Islamic State, we can accurately conclude that bombing high value targets in Syria would not stop a home-made bomb being smuggled onto a Russian airliner, or a group of brothers targeting a European capital.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that Europeans carried out the attacks in Paris. In making ‘Britain safer’ we have to be alert to the fact that it would be a British terrorist who would attack London.
What this means, then, is that we need to look closer to home to ‘make Britain safer’. There are two avenues here. The first is simple; the as-yet-undisclosed amount of money being spent to bomb people safe underground could be better spent on improving cyber-security (the fact that the British Security Minister thanked Anonymous for taking down Islamic State Twitter accounts, despite this action being labelled as counter-productive by intelligence analysts is worrying) and protecting police forces from budget cuts. Indeed, the fact that the Foreign Office has seen significant cuts in the past few years and has frozen hiring except through the Fast Stream suggests that the government is not concerned with improving our relationships with the Arab world. Rather, the primary aim is bomb hostile forces. Such a limited conception of Britain’s relationship with the Middle East not only risks accusations of Orientalism (in which we see only a threatening ‘other’ in the Middle East to be subjugated) but also reveals our inability to develop longer-term plans for the future.
The second point is that Cameron’s narrative that ‘ISIL targets our young people’ completely absolves Britain, and the others, of any role in the evolution of Islamist terrorism. While it is not helpful to simply assert that “Britain brought this upon herself”, in responding to Paris the Prime Minister would do well to examine Britain’s violent relationship with the Middle East in the last century. Indeed, to borrow some lessons from conflict resolution, a key first step in developing new paradigms for negotiation and understanding is self-examination. To develop new ways of combatting terrorist narratives, we need to properly examine our own role in the evolution of the narrative. Acknowledging the mistakes our past is the crucial first step in re-building and improving our relationships not only with Arab leaders but also with the Arab street, and engaging the Arab street is the key to sustainable peace. Importantly, this self-evaluation undermines, rather than feeds into, IS’s narrative of a ‘war on Islam’.
Britain certainly needs to stand by our allies, both in the West and the Middle East. However, Mr Cameron has not made a convincing case that bombing is a successful way to secure peace and keep Britain safe, in either the short or the long-term. The self-examination proposed here is of course not a fully-fledged plan of action. What it could represent is the acceptance that what we have tried since 2001 has not worked and has been counter-productive. Discovering and implementing that alternative is how we help France, secure Britain, and develop sustainable peace. Ultimately, Mr Cameron’s war-cry that not bombing Syria is equivalent to “doing nothing” should be inverted. Bombing Syria will do nothing to support Britain’s own goals, our allies, or the Middle East.
Not bombing does not constitute inaction. It is a demand for something better from the Prime Minister.
Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the position of UK Labour leader, countless pundits have given their view – almost invariably pessimistic – on his leadership. In terms of Middle East foreign policy, Corbyn’s ideas are refreshing (if not strictly as radical as some have claimed), and, if he is able to stick to his principles in the face of less-than-pliant committees of Labour MPs, they represent an opportunity to reconsider British foreign policy.
Jeremy Corbyn and ‘radically different’ foreign policy
Corbyn seeks to prioritise principles over pragmatism. These principles could best be described as international humanitarianism.
There are three easily identifiable areas where he holds strong convictions: intervention in Syria, the arms trade, and the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Corbyn is staunchly against any armed intervention in Syria. Citing the examples of Iraq (2003), Afghanistan (2001) and Libya (2011) he has argued that Western intervention has repeatedly been ill-thought through and has not benefited either the target country or Britain. In particular, he cites Libya’s decline from the Arab Spring to ‘civil war’ and ‘overflowing arms’ in the wider region following Western arms dealing with rebels. Corbyn believes that bombing in Syria would ‘create more mayhem’ and the West would necessarily be dealing with ‘unclear alliances’. Corbyn’s policy for defeating ISIS, by contrast, is to try to isolate the group economically by putting pressure on their international sponsors. As he succinctly put it, ‘you can’t bomb your way to peace’.
By a similar token, Corbyn has repeatedly called for Britain to restrict its arms trade. For over a decade, he has called for a boycott on arms trading to Israel, and he cites the use of imported weapons against Palestinians both in the Intifada (2000) and the most recent conflict (2014). He has similarly questioned the morality of lucrative arms contracts being made with Saudi Arabia – a staunch ally of the West – whose human rights record is problematic. It seems clear that Corbyn would seek to curb this arms trade – reported to be worth approximately $12 billion in 2013 – or at the very least restrict sales to more repressive governments.
Corbyn has been most loudly criticised for his views on the Israel-Palestine issue. Having shared a stage with members of Hamas and Hezbollah (both considered terrorist organisations by the UK Government), he has been accused of anti-Semitism and of being too sympathetic to terrorists. He has been much more radical than previous Labour and Conservative leaders (Gordon Brown in particular stressed an emotional tie to Israel on his historic visit) in his recognition of the Palestinian right to statehood. If Corbyn were able to unify his party, Labour might put far more pressure on Israel than any government in recent memory.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary and an Alternative Approach
This is, however, a big ‘if’. Quite aside from pro-Israel Labour supporters, Corbyn faces a divided party consisting of the more traditional ‘left’ and more recent ‘Blairites’. Foreign policy is not made by the leader alone; Corbyn will need the MPs on his side to create a foreign policy which the whole party can support. Hilary Benn, the shadow foreign secretary, should be seen as an appointment meant to unify MPs and the party faithful. Combining old-Left credentials from his family name with New Labour foreign policy tendencies, Benn was previously tipped as a Deputy Leader of the Labour Party and performed well at Prime Ministers Questions earlier this year. He represents the pragmatist curb to Corbyn’s idealism.
Benn’s views differ from Corbyn on some key issues – he is more unequivocally pro-Europe than Corbyn – and is in favour of keeping a nuclear deterrent. With reference to the Middle East, though, Benn and Corbyn seem able to present a somewhat united front.
On the question of intervention, Benn is less certain in his opposition than Corbyn. Nevertheless, he argues that lessons must be learned from Iraq, and that any intervention in Syria must be based on a solid legal base. This emphasis on a legal base also suggests that, like Corbyn, Benn would support action mandated by the UN but would be reluctant to act independently from it. Indeed, he stresses that Britain should develop a ‘broad approach’ in dealing with ISIS. This stress on a more holistic foreign policy is entirely in line with Corbyn’s own strategy of ‘incremental’ steps to deal with the challenges facing the UK and the region.
Benn has been asking difficult questions about the arms trade for almost as long as Corbyn. While there will of course be opposition from arms groups, both men seem determined to make the processes determining who contracts are sold to more transparent.
On the issue of Israel-Palestine, Benn has been more silent. In the interests of keeping the party together, it seems that Labour’s foreign policy team will choose to focus on armed intervention in Syria, the arms trade, and the related refugee crisis, rather than take on the difficult Israel-Palestine question.
Principled and Pragmatic Foreign Policy
Labour is engaged in a time of discussion and debate. Fine-tuned foreign policy will not come quickly, and besides, the party is more concerned with the twin issues of Europe and migration at present. Regardless, it seems that the shadow foreign office team – including vocal shadow minister for the Middle East Gareth Thomas – will seek to create a more ideologically charged foreign policy. If they are able to work together effectively, Corbyn and Benn could put forward an intriguing foreign policy alternative to the Conservatives which would move decisively away from the Atlanticism and neo-liberalism of the New Labour and Conservative years.
Corbyn has called for a principled foreign policy – a foreign policy based on recognisable ideals (in this case, human rights). The challenge is going to be convincing MPs, lobby groups and the rest of the UK that these principles are worth fighting for, and that Corbyn’s approach is the best way to fight for them while also keeping Britain safe.
On the 14th September, while on his first official visit to Lebanon, David Cameron appointed MP for Watford Richard Harrington as a new Minister for Refugees. Harrington’s remit is to ensure the 20,000 Syrian refugees which Britain has committed to accepting over the next five years are given a ‘warm welcome’. Harrington will Chair the ministerial group on Syrian refugees and report to the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. While the announcement has been greeted favourably, if a little warily, on social media, much remains to be seen regarding whether Harrington will be able to deliver the cornerstone of Cameron’s policy.
Harrington’s appointment from the backbenches is not due to any expertise on refugees or the Middle East. Despite an apparent interest in the region, he does not seem to have written or spoken publicly on the subject of the refugee crisis at all. Indeed, until a week ago his sole interaction with foreign policy regarding the Middle East in the past year was to vote for airstrikes against ISIL. More worryingly, last week he voted against taking in any more refugees than already mandated. In so doing, he towed the party line, which he has done for every vote of the current parliament. More than 24 hours after the appointment, he has made no official recognition of his new role.
He will not, then, bring specialist knowledge to the refugee crisis. Nor, it seems, will he challenge the UK to develop a more developed, multi-faceted and robust policy.
The appointment is a step in the right direction, but Britain’s current policy is inadequate and incomplete. Cameron’s pledge to accommodate 20,000 over the course of the current parliament – just 4,000 a year – pales in comparison to Lebanon’s refugee crisis, where approximately a quarter of the population is now a refugee. David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, has called for ‘far greater political and diplomatic muscle’ in order to alleviate the suffering of thousands of individuals and aid organisations have called on Cameron to accommodate more refugees. Similarly, a more robust policy must be developed that would take into account Caroline Lucas’ prescient argument that the profitable British arms trade facilitates conflict in the first place. The refugee crisis and the Syrian war are interlinked, and Britain desperately needs a policy for them both.
The failure of European leaders to reach a unanimous commitment to resettlement on the 14th September reveals the the complexities of resettling refugees. Britain, however, had already ‘opted out’ of any agreement. Opting out of working together to find a solution does not constitute a policy. Cameron’s call for other European countries to donate more money to refugee camps in Jordan will fall on deaf ears as long as Britain continues to isolate itself from both Europe and the Middle East.