On building bridges and new geopolitical friendships – Why closer ties with Iran should not to be discounted

By Catherine Shakdam. The views expressed are those of the author.

If ever the world needed a foe upon which to cast its ills …

Iran has been labelled a villain and a foe without so much as an opportunity to redeem itself in the eyes of those its revolution most offended.

And while many may still despair over Iran’s attachment to religious rule – its refusal to abide by our western political ethos: that any real democratic improvement requires a clear separation of the State and Church, Iran could prove a more reliable partner in the region, than those allies we are currently forced to put on notice.

However determined our western capitals, Washington in the lead, have been to absolve Saudi Arabia from the sins it recently committed, few more shocking  than the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, it is evident that a Rubicon has been crossed, and thus pause is needed in our evaluation of geopolitics, and those dynamics we held as evident.

Iran needs not be perfect to resume its place within the international community, especially since by virtue of its geography and its political gravitational pull it has become a regional superpower. Iran is old, older than most countries in the region and its core stability could prove welcome respite in a region plagued by tribalism, ethnocentrism, sectarianism, and religious radicalism.

More to the point, Iran has proven too capable of withstanding both political adversity and crippling economic sanctions for any of us to still believe that more of the same would crack the proverbial nut.

And if an enemy cannot be made to kneel, we may as well consider making him a friend for his strength may add to our own, and ours to his,  instead of reducing both of our reach.

If Iran may feel a world away in that it still appears our appointed nemesis on the basis of its brash rhetoric and resistance to our calls for normalisation, it would be a disservice to our ambitions to imagine the Islamic Republic much different than we are in its aspiration to maintain sovereignty, its hunger for territorial integrity, and its determination to achieve socio-economic advancement through education and technological ingenuity.

There is most definitely a bridge waiting to be built.

As Benjamin Franklin famously said: “There was never a bad peace or a good war.”

Maybe we ought to distance ourselves from the belief that world politics is a zero-sum game, in which the rise of any one power necessarily takes away from our own. We should learn to recognise opportunities for mutual growth in those areas in which we see eye to eye.

The trick lies in our ability to expand our circle so that we end up including ‘them’ into what we previously considered to be exclusively ‘us’, and in the process gain an ally with vested interests in our future successes.

Education and most particularly what education has meant for Iran’s social fabric, could prove a tentatively alluring sector should we wish to move Iran away from the tumult of hardcore politics, and in doing so build a bridge towards peace.

For all the ills our western capitals have burdened Iran’s Islamic Republic with, it has outperformed most of its contemporaries in the field of education.

After the 1979 Revolution education was included in the high priority list of the government, focusing on programs like adult literacy, the construction of new schools, and expansion of public colleges and other higher education institutes. As of result Iran’s literacy rate reached 94.6% by 2001 across all age groups.

As of September 2015, 93% of the Iranian adult population is  literate, without any gender discrepancy or disparity. Iran sits firmly in the liberal seat as far as access to education goes.

By 2007, Iran had a student to workforce population ratio of 10.2%, one of the highest ratios in the world.

In a recent interview with Ardeshir Zahedi, made available to NCF before its publication, the former Iranian diplomat points to Iran’s educational prowess to demonstrate how decidedly proactive Iran has been towards not only equality of opportunity, but access to the workplace as far as gender equality is concerned.

He notes: “Today Iran is different than it was 40 years ago …

Today 4o million [Iranians] (out of a total 83 million population) have studied in universities and they are the leaders of the future … two third of which are women … I’m proud to say this, this is my country.”

A former man of the Shah, Mr Zahedi cannot be accused of favouritism to Iran’s Islamic Republic.

Unlike some of its neighbours, Iran is not at war with its female population; it does not operate on the belief that women should play a passive role in society.

And while Foreign Minister Javad Zarif admitted his nation’s many failures and mishaps as far as  human rights and freedom in general are concerned, the republic sits on strong foundations.

In 40 years women have managed not only to reach out to the highest degree of education but they have driven the narrative in the workplace, affirming themselves in leading positions across all sectors of industry, and diplomacy.

Surely we must recognise that for a system of governance to favour education above all else, regardless of gender, ethnicity, and faith, there must ground for reconciliation, or at least dialogue.

If we consider, as Christopher Hitchens so frequently, and one might add most eloquently argued, that social advancement rests on the liberation and empowerment of women, Iran is on par with our worldview. It would stand to reason therefore to facilitate such process by means of inclusion and exchange so that other areas of cooperation may be identified.

If Iran sits much at odds with our western capitals, the education sector represents too much of an opportunity to break new ground to be ignored. Friendships are built around common interests and values. In a speech in September 2018 the UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, stressed that Britain needed to strengthen its support for a rules-based international order, saying there will be a price to pay for countries that do not share the UK’s values and frequently cross geopolitical red lines.

A case could be made here for a strong common denominator, especially in view of Iran’s shared red line, that represented by its abhorrence for ISIS’s brand of Islamic radicalism.

Catherine Shakdam is a contributor to NCF and a researcher at Al Bayan Centre for Planning & Studies

 

The Great March of Return: where are the terrorists – The NCF Gaza reports

Palestinians are protesting against restrictions on what goes in and out of Gaza. They are also supporting ‘right to return’ calls from Palestinian refugees. The moving of the USA’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has exaserbated the situation. On Monday 14th May 40,000 Gazans joined the border protest. At least 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed thus far and thousands injured. Israel claims that protestors are terrorists attempting to break through the barrier. However several hundred metres separate protestors from IDF personnel. Most of the protestors were not violent and avoided getting too close to the ‘border’. Protestors included families with children. Gazans struggle to deal with increasing difficulties. Residents only have around four hours of electricity a day, there is limited access to clean water, limited health services and unemployment in the region is at around 64%. 

The response from the NCF in Gaza

The devastating reality of the situation has been reinforced by the Next Century Foundation’s office in the International Press Centre in Gaza. We were able to speak to them following the events of Monday 14th which they described as a “bloody, bloody day” and the worst so far. Award winning Gazan journalist Adel Zanoun told us that 3,288 people had been injured with a range of severity levels, including journalists. When asked about our journalist friends in Gaza, he said that they are all under threat regardless of whether they are national or international. The targeting of the press indicates that Israel’s claims that they are merely protecting themselves and responding to threats are not credible. Journalists are clearly marked with the word ‘PRESS’ across their chests. If Israel were combatting ‘terrorists’ then why have so many journalists, an estimated 175, been injured with several dead?

Regarding the use of force by Israel, Zanoun said that people were being injured by live fire against the Palestinian demonstrators that had steadily increased over the weeks; he said it was live ammunition that was injuring these people and not rubber bullets. Critical of Israel, he repeatedly tells me of how “bloody” it has been and the intense pressure that the Palestinians in Gaza are under. He makes reference to Hamas, stating that they have definitely played a role in the organisation of the demonstrations and that they may, following on from the intensity of Israel’s response, establish a counter response of their own. He also said that neither Ramadan nor the violence will deter demonstrations from continuing. However, he does not believe that the protests mask terrorism and emphasises that these were Palestinian people objecting to mistreatment.

Citing a widespread “collapse” of infrastructure, he emphasised the severity of the humanitarian situation, Public sector workers have been impacted with their salaries being cut; he says this has led to hospitals opening intermittently and no authorities in place to protect or serve the people in Gaza. There is no knowledge as to when full salaries will be reinstated. Zanoun repeatedly said that the Palestinian people are truly under such pressure that is only likely to worsen. With hospitals closing and virtually no ability to move in and out of the region, and no option for people to return if they do leave, the injured were not adequately cared for*. He says that there had been a breakdown of reconciliation between Hamas and Palestinian authorities in Ramallah thus contributing to the absence of humanitarian or political progress.

The Palestinian people in Gaza are suffering, as they have been for many years. The firing of live ammunition against thousands of mostly innocent and unarmed protestors has furthered the suffering. When I asked Zanoun what he thinks about the future and the next steps, he said “there is no hope for Gaza now”. There is uncertainty, he says, that means that “no one knows what will happen” in one hour, one day or one month. What he does know is that the pressure continues to mount against the people and that political and humanitarian solutions are needed immediately to address the declining situation in Gaza. He said that people and politicians need to be working towards helping those in Gaza.

*N.B. Since speaking to Zanoun, Egypt has opened the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza strip throughout the month of Ramadan. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi tweeted that this would help “alleviate the burden of the brothers in the Gaza strip”

The background to the response

Since the end of March, 110 Palestinians, including children, have been killed in Gaza by Israel’s forces and thousands have been injured as they protest by the ‘border’. The response from the international community was weak to begin with, little attention was paid in the earlier days of these protests. However, since the 14th, Gaza is very much top of the international agenda with varied responses to the atrocities committed.

Israel’s representatives have denied acting wrongfully. They believe that Hamas was the driver of these protests and that the intention was to target Israel, target the borders and do so under the guise of a demonstration. Therefore, they have said their intention was to simply protect their borders and target ‘terrorists’ who were supposedly conducting a terrorist operation. It is undeniable that Hamas have been involved in the organising of these protests, something Zanoun said freely. However, to justify opening live fire on civilians because they are ‘terrorists’ is unacceptable. Not all of those who have died were terrorists, the members of the press who have been wounded, for example, were not terrorists.

In the immediate aftermath, the United States aligned themselves with Israel and did not, unlike their French and British counterparts, condemn the actions of the IDF. They believe their actions were justified. Nikki Haley spoke at the United Nations the following day where Israel was praised for showing “restraint” and blamed Hamas for the death of Palestinians and the violence, stating that it was what they wanted. The USA believed that ultimately, Israel acted in the best interests of its national security. Their stance is perhaps unsurprising given the choice to move the embassy on Nakba Day, a strong display of alliance with Israel and their lack of support for a future peace process.

Britain and France have expressed their disapproval of the actions of Israel and the wish to go forward in peace. Prime Minister Theresa May said that this level of violence is ‘destructive to peace efforts’ and that both sides should be acting with ‘restraint’. Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, stood up and passionately condemned the ‘massacre’ committed by Israel against protestors.  French President Emmanuel Macron was openly disapproving of the violence exercised by Israel’s forces and expressed empathy and compassion for the Palestinian people in Gaza.

As aforementioned, Egypt’s opening of the border crossing with the Gaza strip is emblematic of the attention and compassion that is now being shown to the Palestinians in Gaza by the international community. The United Nations has expressed its concern for the events that have happened since March in Gaza. Zeid Raad al-Hussein, the current High Commissioner for Human Rights, has emphatically highlighted the plight of those in Gaza and their suffering. He also raises the point that there have been no casualties on Israel’s side thus demonstrating the asymmetry in any violent exchanges. Israel, according to al-Hussein, has acted without constraint and excessively. On Friday 18th May the UN Human Rights Council held a special session resolving to call an urgent independent enquiry into Monday’s events. The UK was amongst the 14 countries who abstained, citing the need for Israel to carry out their own independent investigation; the USA and Israel rejected the resolution. The latter once again cited the events in Gaza as a response to Hamas’ terrorist activities.

In Gaza itself, demonstrations continue unabated. The numbers are less and people are more cautious yet there is still drive there. It was quieter though as people across the region, including Israel, said their prayers for the people of Gaza and the ones who have been lost.

The international community has taken notice of Gaza and the suffering and unfairness that its people are subjected to. Israel may affirm the idea that their use of force was a way of responding to a perceived terrorist threat, but these arguments have little credibility. Of course there were agitators and violent protestors present, but children, impartial observers and thousands who posed no threat to the IDF have been injured, some killed. The treatment of Palestinians and their human rights has long been a cause for concern. With several nation states now openly criticising recent events and condemning the use of force against civilians, it leads to hope that there may be, as Adel Zanoun wished, humanitarian and political change for the people of Gaza.

The need for objectivity and transparency in response to the Russian threat

Countries around the Western world have joined the UK in expelling Russian diplomats. Considering Russia’s actions since the 2014 Crimean annexation, this solidarity from the West is not surprising. Whilst the nerve agent attack has evidently provided the spark, there has been growing unease in the West concerning Russia’s behaviour. Russia’s foreign policy since 2014 has been aggressive, characterised by consistent interference in Western politics.

However, the West’s response has been weak-minded, cowardly and, as a consequence, has heightened tensions. This is not to suggest that the West should fight fire with fire and restart programs of brinkmanship, collusion and the dirty tactics that defined international relations in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, unsubstantiated allegations of partisanship partnered with a refusal to present transparent findings have prevented clear and untainted evidence of Russia’s actions from being published, allowing Russia to deny all allegations whilst continuing to be a sort of spectre looming over the west.

The current response to the attack in Salisbury is a perfect example. With little information other than the strong assumption that Russia was behind it, Russian diplomats across the world have been expelled. Investigations have not concluded and findings detailing the extent to which parties were involved have not been published. Reactionary rhetoric has been used over objective, procedural, unequivocal evidence. Russia can continue to deny their involvement. Russia remains a vague, unquantified threat.

There is a desperate need for transparency in the West to combat this growing threat. The major problem preventing Russia from being held accountable is that it is difficult for the public to truly know the extent of their involvement. Investigations have, understandably, needed to remain opaque in order to be successful. However,  investigations have been tainted by the politics of the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s rather innocuous claim that the investigation should be completed before any action was taken led to character assassinations from right across the British political spectrum. A similar situation occurred in the USA. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the US election has devolved into an apparent war between the President and the intelligence services, preventing any findings from being considered in an objective and untainted way. With constant accusations of misinformation and partisanship, made with apparent ulterior motives, the institutions created to defend against such foreign attacks are being eroded into impotency. Investigations need to be allowed to continue without political rhetoric twisting them at every step. We need to see unequivocal evidence of Russia’s culpability.

The issue is compounded by allegations that Russia is making use of social media and data analysis in the USA (as well as conceivably in regard to the Brexit vote). Misinformation and targeted propaganda are the major stories of the day, and again, Russia’s involvement is assumed and alleged but not certified or explained. At the moment the argument revolves around statements like, “Our data has been taken by third parties” and these third parties have “influenced elections”. Such vague statements allow Russia to continue to deny and deflect criticism. Our elections have been affected by this data collation, but we are unsure how or to what extent. We need transparency, both from Facebook, regarding how they protect and distribute our data, and from the companies and organisations that use our data. Only with this level of transparency can the threat from Russia be detailed, realised and prevented. As it stands, this vague allegation that “Russia is meddling” fixes nothing and simply breeds further tension and distrust.

Engage, not Prevent – a review of a Select Committee’s report on the Government’s Anti-Terrorism policy

“Identifying the tipping point for many men and women thinking of joining Daesh remains the holy grail in our fight against radicalisation”.

It emerged a couple weeks ago that one of the Bethnal Green school girls who left Britain for Syria in 2015 had been killed in a Russian airstrike.  Kadiza Sultana, along with Amira Abase and Shamima Begum were a part of a surge of young people heading out from Britain to join organisations fighting in Syria and Iraq.  The numbers are deeply concerning; a recent report estimates that around 850 have left, with 125 losing their lives (the NCF believes the real figure to be considerably higher).  Kadiza Sultana and her friends from East London have become a statistic in a recent Select Committee report that addresses concerns over the Government’s Anti-Terrorism policy.

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Kadiza (second row, second from left) is just one of 850 young Britons to have fled to the Middle East.  A Select Committee is calling for the Prevent Strategy to be reviewed and overhauled.

The report, published on 25th August 2016, has highlighted a number of problems with the Prevent Strategy, and offers options to make the strategy more accessible to those that need it most.  The report centred on the issue of combatting radicalisation and extremism amongst vulnerable people, and draws on how The Home Office, schools, health organisations, social media companies, security services and the press all have a responsibility to enhance their resources with the aim of engaging communities, instead of alienating them.  The committee felt that the current system used for Prevent was causing more harm than good.  Security Minister Ben Wallace argued that the strategy had been reviewed numerous times to “ensure it works,” and that “for Prevent to work, we all need to get behind it, not stand on the side lines undermining it”.  However, Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow has called for a proper assessment of Prevent, to “really understand what works and what doesn’t”.

The Select Committee have called for a review, and have encouraged a community led approach.  As of this moment, the strategy is viewed by many in local communities as a “big brother” security operation.  Harun Khan, deputy head of the Muslim Council of Britain has also expressed his concern, claiming that many young people feel they are being viewed as “suspects” rather than feeling welcomed and encouraged to speak out.  The real focus of the strategy should be around building a relationship between various influential community groups and the state.

A CCTV camera
Prevent was criticised after hidden CCTV cameras were placed around predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham

 The most promising set of options to improve Prevent was the strategy suggested for dealing with families and the rehabilitation of those affected by extremism.  In order to bridge the silence that characterises the relationship between the state and the communities, the committee highlighted the need for an easily accessible advice and counselling service, particularly for parents, but also for other loved ones and friends who may have concerns about people being radicalised.  If this were to be put in place, perhaps with community organisation members acting as part of the team of advisers, we could identify the tipping point where individuals start to embrace extremism.  The issue is a complex one, but engaging with families, would build up an extensive array of counter-narrative case studies.

Finally, with regards to the committee’s stance on rehabilitation, empowering young people to have a voice and use it with confidence seems to be the most commanding way to combat extremism at a grass roots level in the UK.  The committee advocated a programme that helps young people from vulnerable communities in acquiring critical reasoning skills and a sense of belonging and purpose, so that they could be aware of any manipulation or grooming.  Sara Khan, co-founder of the anti-terror organisation ‘Inspire’, has looked at girls like Kadiza as victims, who “lack the critical thinking skills” which “is what makes them vulnerable to Islamist extremist propaganda”.

It is important to note the success of the UK’s security services in preventing tragedies on the scale which have been seen elsewhere, and that should be highly commended.  However, the approach used by previous governments to counter extremism has so far not achieved the success that we have desired.  The Select Committee recognised that local communities, community leaders and young people are willing to cooperate and tackle the problem if the correct strategies were put in place to enable positive changes.  That being said, the report urged the Government to not squander this opportunity to harness the powerful force of community engagement.

By Nihal Patel

Update: Leadsom the best for the Middle East

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The results are in, and Michael Gove is out. While neither of our potential female prime ministers has particularly favourable opinions on Middle Eastern affairs, Andrea Leadsom is the lesser of two evils.

Unfortunately, Theresa May is still far ahead in the race for prime minister; Michael Gove was knocked out with 46 votes compared to Leadsom’s 84 and May’s 199.

For the future of the Middle East, it would be best if Leadsom could close this gap and defeat May. As the Minister of State at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, Leadsom gained extensive knowledge about nuclear safety and regulations. She has already established that she sees Iraq as a “key partner.” Leadsom’s experience in this field will make her more likely to have prior experience with the region and to understand the importance of maintaining stable relationships with other countries in the Middle East, even maintaining these relationships is only out of self-interest.

Meanwhile, May’s policies regarding the Middle East are slightly less favourable. Her recently launched review of Sharia law, while relevant, shows a reluctance to be understanding and accepting of other views and cultures. This is further exhibited by her statement that she will attempt to ensure that citizenship is only granted to people who “embrace British values.”

Neither Theresa May nor Andrea Leadsom is afraid to use force overseas, which could lead to further violence in the Middle East. Both also have very harsh immigration policies, which will certainly not do anything to improve the fates of refugees. It is clear that the future role of the UK in the Middle East is uncertain, but no matter which of these two women is chosen to lead this country, there is reason to be concerned about how Middle Eastern affairs will be handled.

Where do the current Prime Minister candidates stand on the Middle East?

As the UK looks forward to the future after Brexit, the next Prime Minister will not only have to deal with turmoil within British politics but will also need to address the current situation in the Middle East.

Theresa May

(Home Secretary)

Theresa_May_UK_Home_Office

Immigration

As the current home secretary, May campaigned for Remain but rejected EU refugee resettlement schemes and is a strong anti-immigration voice. She has campaigned to deport terrorism suspects, and has stripped 33 people of British citizenship based on suspected terrorist activity. She has proclaimed that she will attempt to ensure that citizenship is only granted to people who embrace British values.

Domestic Affairs

Recently, May launched a review as part of the government’s counter-extremism strategy which will examine how Sharia law can cause ‘harm’ in communities, and specifically how the Islamic legal system discriminates against women especially in cases of divorce, domestic violence, and custody cases. It will also consider the extent to which the application of Sharia law is incompatible with the rule of law in Britain [1].

Support

May voted in favour of bombing Syria in 2013 and 2015, and she supported the Labour government’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. She has almost always supported the use of UK military forces overseas.

Michael Gove

(Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice)

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Extremism

One of Gove’s main reasons for supporting Brexit was his belief that the being in the EU makes it more difficult to identify terrorists as the EU dictates “what our spies can do and whether we can be kept safe” [2]. In addition, he says that the UK has been unable to stop terror suspects from entering the country because of EU law.

In his 2006 book Celsius 7/7, Gove discusses “how the west’s policy of appeasement has provoked yet more fundamentalist terror—and what has to be done now.” He compares the threat of political Islam to communism and Nazism. He claims that his motivation for the book came from Britain’s “widespread reluctance to acknowledge the real scale and nature of the Islamist terror threat” and the “failure to scrutinise, monitor or check the actions, funding and operation of those committed to spreading the Islamist word in Britain” [3]. Gove also says that “if we believe in the superiority of our way of life” then “we should be urgently working to spread democracy” and that the Islamists are right to see the West as their mortal enemy [3].

Despite Theresa May’s rigid views on immigration and the deportation of terrorist suspects, May and Gove have clashed dramatically over the government’s strategy for dealing with extremism. Gove is very harsh in his policy on extremism, and believes that all extremists should be targeted, whether or not they support violence [4].

Israel-Palestine

Gove is a supporter of Israel, and his views on the country were described in the “Jewish 100s” as “More favourable than those of any other mainstream British politician, current or past” [5]. He also had very strong opinions about the boycott of Isreali goods, and in 2014 said that the boycott is a crime worse than apartheid. He also said “We need to remind ourselves that defending Israel’s right to exist is defending our common humanity. Now more than ever” [6].

Support

He was a strong supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and even five years later described it as a foreign policy success. Gove supported action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2013, and voted for air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015.

 

Andrea Leadsom

(Member of Parliament for South Northamptonshire)

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Nuclear Energy

Nuclear safety and regulation is a subject Leadsom places great importance on. During her speech at the Iraqi Petroleum Conference in 2015, she called Iraq a “key partner” in achieving “our shared goals of energy security and prosperity” [7]. Leadsom also said, “The UK is committed to continue to stand by the people of Iraq, the government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government in their fight against terrorism and protecting civilians from ISIL’s murderous campaign” [7].

ISIS

Leadsom supported the use of airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq, and posted on her website that Parliament agreed to them because ISIS cannot be reasoned with, is a direct threat to Britain, and the Iraqi government asked for assistance.

Immigration

Like the other candidates, Leadsom plans to crack down on all immigration. She says “Freedom of movement will end and the British parliament will decide how many people enter our country each year to live, work and contribute to our national life” [8]. Unlike Theresa May, Leadsom has guaranteed the rights of the EU citizens already living in the UK. However, the immigration policies of all of the candidates leave the future uncertain for non-EU citizens in the UK and for refugees.

Support

Leadsom has consistently supported the use of military force overseas.

Jo Cox MP

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The NCF is deeply and profoundly saddened by the news of the brutal murder of British Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox today. MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire and a former aid worker, Jo Cox was chair of the All Party Parliamentary Friends of Syria group, a group she herself established. She cared deeply about Syria. She argued for greater Western engagement in Syria. She campaigned for more action on the refugee crisis. She was a married mother of two and entered parliament last year. Jo was also chair of the Labour Women’s Network and Senior Advisor to the Freedom Fund, an anti-slavery charity. Our thoughts and prayers are with her husband Brendan Cox and her family on this terrible day.
Photo Jax Malden

The Immolation of the West?

There are persistent claims in the media that amount to a picture of a possible combined ‘Sunni’ intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is said that Saudi Arabia is considering an armed incursion. Turkey is frequently tipped to engage and then nothing happens. Lord Howell of Guildford asked a most interesting question in the House of Lords which concluded:

Could she [the Minister responsible] just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.

The Minister gave no clear reply. We may note a related question on British engagement in the region in the House of Commons which received the following answer from Penny Mordaunt Minister of State, Minister for the Armed Forces:

We have deployed a small number of military personnel serving as liaison officers in Saudi headquarters to provide insight into Saudi operations. They remain under UK command and control. These liaison officers are not involved in the targeting process – whether it be the selection, decision making or directing. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.”

Something is up and Parliament seems unclear precisely what. But British military personnel are already involved in one or more regional conflicts without a very clear mandate. Is mission creep already in danger of setting in? Meanwhile, it is becoming more and more clear that the US is disinclined to intervene directly despite fairly aggressive lobbying from the Syrian Opposition in Washington (which also has strong links to the High Tory element in Parliament and Government).

We can speculate and speculate but anything we say may well result in egg on our faces when the facts are known, Nevertheless, what seems to be happening is two-fold. First, an appreciation that the Russian intervention is not going to result in the fall of Assad at the hands of the rebels and, second, that the drive outwards from Damascus could, if unchecked, destroy the ‘moderate’ Opposition and send waves of refugees into Turkey and thence to Europe and south into Jordan. Jordan is the forgotten nation here and its stability is a major concern of certainly the British.

The solution may be to use armed force to hold enclaves that stop border movements (and retain some bargaining position for the opposition) and also act as barriers to ISIS – but to secure these enclaves may require sovereign nations to invade another sovereign country which may then turn the business into a war of national liberation and pull in the countervailing regional powers, trigger opportunistic revolts amongst minorities within the primary invading powers and lead the superpowers into a confrontation that neither wants. The problem of Ukraine and the Baltic States lies behind this in a world where everything is connected.

It is, of course, an utter mess. The secrecy of the British Executive in relation to its own Parliament under conditions where many Britons have deeply negative feelings towards the two Sunni regional powers is a sign of its political weakness. The Government does not have the historic consensus on foreign policy to rely on – quite the contrary, although divided the Labour Opposition is led by a man who is suspicious of NATO, prefers dialogue to armed intervention under almost all conceivable conditions and is a known critic of the human rights record of just about everyone.

There are a number of things to consider here other than the obvious fact that, despite Kerry’s sterling work, Russia and, more indirectly, Iran hold all the cards in Syria. The ultimate fear in the White House is that the Sunni states intervene, ‘blow it’ and, in responding, Russia triggers a proto-global conflict by ‘accident’ that results in domestic protests in the West that would make Vietnam look like a picnic. Bear in mind that the New Hampshire Primary has now badly frightened the Washington Establishment – we have two lead candidates who oppose the consensus and many of whose supporters would rather vote for the other than for an Establishment alternative within their own Party.

This utter mess could even be presented as the fifteen year history of a reversal – the blundering attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East has resulted in conditions that threaten liberal democracy at home, initially from a security state mentality and now from reactive revolutionary populisms.

Given the hysteria about terrorism and refugees and the rise of the new left-wing and national populist movements, a major destabilising crisis involving overseas armed engagement would actually destabilise Europe and even perhaps (though less certainly) the US and split the Alliance – what a prize for Mr. Putin! Note the reluctance of the UK Government actually to do anything publicly that would be effective in Syria (using its air power) despite winning a vote. The contentious vote that almost split the Opposition now looks as if it was designed only to cause some political mayhem domestically and to re-establish the principle that the Government could do what it willed.

The truth is that the Western public is deeply divided. It is unlikely to go to war willingly to defend Muslim obscurantism no matter how moderate the Islamists (and it will turn on its own Governments if it is pushed too far). Worse for the old elite, the psychological operation to demonise Russia and give NATO the latitude for action are falling rather flat except amongst the High Tory and Atlanticist Labour converted. Social media scrutiny is creating a substantial minority ready to take a resistance view of the matter and the mass of the population simply do not care but know they are not going to die for a bit of East European black earth or Middle Eastern desert. Short of an instant nuclear exchange, Putin holds a lot of the propaganda cards which he can then turn to his benefit in Europe and especially in destabilising both France (where he has been courting the NF) and Germany (where Russia has always had friends in high places).

In terms of the consequences of a civilised settlement in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may actually be part of the problem for the West, more than Iran and Russia (neither of which actually wants to go to the brink). That is, I believe, understood by policymakers and is a situation that will continue until Obama is replaced (over a year away) but only if his successor is not an outlier like Sanders or Trump, both of whom express some radical new views about America’s interests.

As for Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s attitude to Al-Assad is partly a matter of calculated interest and partly a matter of ‘honour’ that goes back to the assassination of Hariri, their primary agent in the Levant. Killing their regional man requires a remorseless vengeance that cannot end – this is politics but politics that is also personal in a world where the clientage systems of tradition matter. The personal is the political. Honour (no longer an issue in Western rational minds) remains live in Saudi minds.

This is not fully understood by many outside analysts. They dismiss it as ‘irrational’ or something that can be negotiated away but it cannot be so because it has its own inner logic. Saudi networks of allegiance are based on a feudal commitment to service in return for protection. The Saudis failed to protect their man because of ‘treachery’. They must avenge him to show that they will do so in other such cases and that their service providers need not go elsewhere if things get wobbly.

We have also detected a rising Saudi nationalism in the Saudi middle classes – analogous to being British and relating that Britishness to allegiance to the Crown (rather than to the People au Corbyn). A certain degree of militarism and swaggering goes with the territory as it did at the equivalent stage of development in European proto-nationalism. But it is sincere and growing stronger. The primitive view that Saudis are primitives is worse than insulting. It is wrong. It is a highly sophisticated political culture with close links to the British Royal Family and an intimate understanding of power and of how it is held and maintained.

Saudi nationalism rather than simpler reliance on feudal relations is a natural development that is culturally transformative if risky. Many Saudis respond to it.  It has also become a political necessity that binds the old tribal interests with the rising middle classes in a common destiny and it helps to explain a strategy of assertive and disruptive intervention across the region. One’s eyes should turn not north but south to Yemen where this is expressing itself most forcibly and where Western claims about ‘right conduct’ are dismissed when necessary.

For example, the Saudis (and Emiratis) need access to Assab Port to maintain their war in Yemen yet Assab Port is held by a pariah government (Eritrea) as far as the West is concerned. Given the criticality of Ethiopia to the anti-Islamist struggle, the West’s instinct is to retain Eritrea as a pariah (while seeking to bring it into the fold on its terms like Burma or Cuba) yet the Saudis have had the Eritrean President to Riyadh twice late last year and have integrated into their anti-terrorist alliance. The riots and killings in Oromia last week cannot be disconnected from Ethiopian fears of Muslim revolt and the Horn of Africa adds another line to the ever-expanding zone of conflict that now stretches to the Arctic.

The West clearly supports Yemen’s Government against the Houthis (as the Minister for Armed Services’ answer testifies) but no one seriously considers this a serious part of the ‘war on terrorism’ as opposed to a regional strategic play between the Saudi and Iranian networks where the Saudis clearly resent the fact that the West, in the person of Obama but also institutionally in Europe, has shifted towards an obvious and collaborative respect for Iranian aspirations.

Saudi concerns about the Iranians are thus so great that they are quite prepared to destabilise Western anti-Sunni Islamist strategies – not only in Syria but in the Horn of Africa. It is as if the Saudis have said to themselves that they will make themselves troublesome so that the West will have to mollify them by agreeing to their demands, perhaps without realising that the big picture does not allow that. But what is this fearsome big picture? It is one in which the Middle East is only one part of a great whole.

The potential danger of all these instabilities is horrendous. Saudi Arabia is a potentially unstable feudal polity moving towards a modernisation strategy that reminds one of the age of Stolypin under the Tsars. It is countering not merely the strategic interests of the West by default but it may be taking on more than it can administratively handle. And yet it feels it has no alternative. The model may not be Russia and revolution (as so many anti-Saudi liberals assume) but the United Kingdom in the Age of Castlereagh.

Even worse, it has perhaps not understood that the depth of resentment against the Kingdom within the West that was mollified in association with Western Governments after 9/11 has recurred with a vengeance under extremely unstable political conditions – the quite weird situation in the US political cycle with Trump and Sanders, deep concerns in Europe about Saudi involvement in mosque-building, human rights and Islamic migration and, above all, growing perception that, if not backing ISIS, the Kingdom may be backing some dark forces of its own in Greater Syria.

So, Saudi actions in this context are critical. If it enters into the Syrian morasse, with or without Turkey, Egyptian and ‘secret’ British support, and things go wrong, these things that go wrong can go wrong all the way down that fissure that leads to the Arctic, through a basket case of a Ukraine to the Balts who treat Russians as second class citizens. For the first time since the era of Nixon, Western peoples will be faced with the possibility of a nuclear exchange (and not just on the terms of the BBC’s ridiculous war games) and may not take it lying down. Senator Kerry, if he was reported correctly in his outburst to a Syrian NGO activist (“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”) on Saturday subconsciously revealed the truth of the matter – getting this wrong is an existential question now. The end game could be the immolation of the West if we have many more blunders.

[Tim Pendry is Chairman of TPPR – www.tppr.co.uk and http://blog.tppr.co.uk – but only writes on the Next Century Foundation blog in a personal capacity. He welcomes criticism.]

 

 

On the UK bombing Syria

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Demonstrators outside the UK parliament on the night of the vote for war (NCF picture)

Right or wrong, whatever your perspective, Britain is now bombing ISIS in Syria and the relevant questions become:
1) Whether British bombing will generate national prestige and strengthen bonds to countries such as France which, in turn, empowers Britain to pursue its national interest, or have an inverse effect by, for example, promoting torpor and lack of focus.
2) Correspondingly, whether or not abstaining from bombing would hurt national prestige, bespeaking a lack of will or capacity to engage, thereby weakening the country’s capacity to pursue its national interest;
3) Whether British bombing can be reasonably expected to have a positive or a negative net effect in concrete actual military terms;
4) Whether potential negative outcomes (in such military terms) outweigh the potential symbolic benefits wrought by projecting national force, or are outweighed by these.

What do you think ! ! !

Beyond the Anthem: What Corbyn means for Labour’s Foreign Policy

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.

Britain has a Minister for Refugees and Not Much Else

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.