Britain’s Shameless Conservative-led Government: Squeezing the Poor to Help the Rich

CounterPunch

Britain’s governing Conservative Party looks increasingly clueless and is taking the country in a direction not seen since the 1990s. The populist right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) is on the march with an agenda that is vehemently anti-Europe, anti-immigration and isolationist. It has stirred strong passions among British voters, angry at the decline in their living standards and estranged from mainstream politics. Not knowing what to do, Prime Minister David Cameron’s party has adopted UKIP’s strident rhetoric and is preaching policies normally associated with extremist groups.

Haunted by the prospect of defeat at the next general election, the prime minister and his associates are trying to outdo UKIP. Cameron’s coalition partners, the Liberal Democratic Party, can only protest or maintain embarrassing silence, but cannot shake off accusations of enabling a Conservative minority to stay in power.

In an attempt to hold the party together, Prime Minister Cameron has promised a referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union after the next general election. His frontline is busy attacking Europe’s institutions, whether part of the EU or the European Court of Human Rights that predates the European Union and is quite separate.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced at the recent party conference that the United Kingdom would defy the European Court’s rulings and apply laws passed in the British Parliament. The European Court of Human Rights was initially established in 1959. The Human Rights Convention itself was signed in 1950. Britain played a leading role in the creation of both. The United Kingdom joined the European Common Market, the EU’s predecessor, under a Conservative government in 1973. A two-thirds majority approved Britain’s continued membership in a referendum two years later.

The Conservative leadership today prefers to avoid any mention of these historic facts. Party grandees like ex-cabinet ministers Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve are critical of the leadership’s approach, but have been side-lined. Their criticisms are not likely to make much difference. They do, however, strengthen the context in which the Conservative Party operates. UKIP’s firebrand leader Nigel Farage mocks Cameron’s government for adopting copycat policies. It underscores the government’s weakness.

Writing in the Observer, a senior commentator William Keegan described the Conservative Party as remarkably shameless. Keegan was particularly scathing about Prime Minister Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne, who suggested that they would cut the benefits of the unemployed and the working poor to enable the government to reduce taxes for the better off.

After Prime Minister Cameron, George Osborne is the most powerful member of the cabinet. He controls spending across all government departments. Osborne is sometimes mentioned as a future leader of the Conservative Party. As well as trade unions, the old enemy, Osborne has now declared war on charities trying to fill the gap created by the government’s welfare cuts. He recently told a gathering of business leaders that they must defend the economy from “an anti-free market movement led by trade unions and charities”.

Conservatives were indignant when the British charity Oxfam issued a poster in June suggesting that a combination of “zero-hours contracts, high prices, benefit cuts and unemployment” had created a critical situation in the country. There is a feeling in the party that charities have become too political and too left-wing. When the Conservatives last ruled Britain from 1979 to 1997, the trade unions were their enemy number one. The neo-Thatcherite generation in the present government has added charities to the list of enemies.

To those who remember the state of British politics in the 1980s and 1990s, it looks like a repeat performance by the militant right-wing under Margaret Thatcher and John Major. In her early years as leader, Thatcher encouraged her militant admirers, who ultimately contributed to her isolation and downfall in 1990. They also caused trouble for her successor John Major and ensured that the party was defeated in 1997. The party had to wait until 2010 for another victory.

After John Major’s resignation as leader when the Conservatives were defeated at the 1997 general election, the party’s behaviour grew even more bizarre. Moderates lost out; the party was soon in the grip of militants, with Thatcher openly encouraging them to go for an extreme agenda against the European Union, immigrants and public services. During the leadership of Major’s successor William Hague, they used absurd tactics to keep their core support and scared centrist voters in the process.

Wrapped up in the British flag, volunteers could be seen telling people that there were “only so many days left to save the Queen’s head on the pound coin” and they must “vote Conservative to save Britain from German and French domination. Labour won another resounding victory and William Hague resigned as Conservative leader. He is now in the cabinet of Prime Minister David Cameron.

Britain is again at a crossroads. Vital public services, including the national health system, are in crisis. Talk of economic recovery is folly, based on claims that credible experts, sometimes government advisors, contradict. Poor and middle classes, under continuing squeeze, are angry and frustrated. The country is isolated in Europe and has chosen to be on America’s coattail even more noticeably.

The ruling Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat coalition partners are moving more and more to the right. Moderates are out, being replaced by an aggressive generation of Conservative politicians who bank on shrill rhetoric and unholy alliances. With the next general election just over six months away, the day of reckoning is fast approaching.

[END]

The future of Iraq: the plot thickens

Middle East Eye

Politicians and pundits have been forecasting the breakup of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in the United States-led invasion in 2003. Events in Iraq and actions of external powers such as Israel, America and European allies have brought the prospect of Iraq’s fragmentation closer.

We are frequently reminded about the “artificial” nature of the Iraqi state since its creation during the British–French mandate in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire; that the Kurdish north, the Sunni centre and the Shia south had rendered Iraq irreconcilable; that in light of Saddam Hussein’s autocratic rule, the breakup of Iraq was inevitable; and it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. The moment may have arrived.

The past is indeed instructive, and defines the present as well as the future. However, an essential element missing in this narrative is the role of external intervenors now hastening the breakup of Iraq. Today’s Iraqi state, dismembered and reconstructed by the Americans only a decade ago, is as fragile as at any time since the British first created it in 1920. A century thereafter, intervening players are many in that country.

With his declaration of support last June for the idea of an independent Kurdish state in the midst of Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had thrown the cat among the pigeons. Netanyahu’s instinctive belligerence and his own brand of Zionism are comparable to the extremist outlanders that exist in other faith systems. Even so, questions were raised following Netanyahu’s remarks and his possible motive. Was it a glib suggestion from him alone, or part of a bigger plot to reshape the Middle East? If so, could other powers be involved?

Those who are aware of Middle East history of the last century know that great powers coming from far away have redrawn the region by force. They have invaded, engineered coups and manipulated the region’s politics and peoples. Instances which come to mind are the territorial carve-up of the Middle East by Britain and France, the US-Soviet Great Game of the Cold War, and the 1953 plot by the American CIA and the British MI6 intelligence agencies to overthrow Iran’s elected government. The Anglo-American coup took Iran to a turbulent journey leading the country to the 1979 revolution and creating the foundations of what is Iran today.

Since Netanyahu’s bombshell announcement, the plot has thickened in light of developments involving the United States and its close European allies. The rising spectre of the Islamic State (IS) and the threat to Iraq’s minorities and Americans serving in that country has offered the Obama administration a new opportunity for greater military intervention. Obama’s intervention is opaque, but intervention it definitely is. Again, Britain and France have been quick to follow the United States in both rhetoric and action.

Washington seized on the rapid advances of the Islamic State militia in parts of central and northern Iraq up to the autonomous Kurdistan region. Reaction in the European capitals was instant, in particular London and Paris. Some fighters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria came from Syria itself, where they had benefited from American policy and Saudi and Qatari help for their campaign against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. More came from Libya, Egypt, even Britain. However, many are disgruntled Sunnis of Iraq, product of a home-grown phenomenon.

Atlantic magazine published a damning article by Steve Clemons with the headline “‘Thank God for the Saudis’: ISIS, Iraq, and the Lessons of Blowback” on 23 June 2014. Clemons explained how ISIS was created by Saudi and Qatari support with encouragement from the United States.

Saudi Arabia, in particular, has got into the habit of supporting Sunni groups to go fight elsewhere, so they do not pose a threat to the ruling al-Saud family. The habit goes back to the Afghan war against the Soviets in 1980s if not before. Obama is not pleased by this errant behaviour of America’s closest Arab allies. Tensions are barely under the surface between the White House and the Saudi royals over other policy matters. Nonetheless, after a difficult period, Obama seems to have rekindled friendship with al-Saud family, visiting them in March this year.

After the creation of another monster, the American-led narrative quickly switched against the Islamic State. The time had come to “destroy” the organisation. Hence the bombing of Iraq; the decision to send more US military “advisers”; the removal of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki after President Obama and Vice-President Jo Biden held telephone consultations with Iraq’s president; and the move to supply weapons to the Kurdish Autonomous Region. Speculation is rife in some circles that America may even deploy “ground troops” in Iraq. They are actually there behind some other veil.

When the United States initiates a foreign policy move, Britain and France are eager to follow. It is also expedient for both Prime Minister David Cameron and President Francois Hollande to raise security and foreign policy issues, for both leaders are in domestic political trouble. In Paris, the Socialist president has followed Washington in deciding to supply weapons to Iraqi Kurds, ostensibly to defeat the ISIS militia. In London, the coalition government of the Conservative and Liberal-Democratic parties has ordered the Royal Air Force to fly ever deeper inside Iraq to “monitor” ISIS activities.

The change came barely a week after the operation was begun to “relieve” Yazidi refugees besieged in Mount Sinjar. In London, the Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, asserted that the British mission in Iraq could last months. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, went further and said that Britain should be prepared to deploy its “military prowess” to help defeat the jihadists. At that point, it began to look like another mission creep. What he really meant remains unclear. The British public has little appetite to send fighting troops abroad, though there are reports of special forces already in Iraq.

So, only weeks after Netanyahu’s declaration of support for Kurdish independence, the plot has thickened. Let us take, for example, the bombing and intelligence operations by American and British aircraft; the deployment by President Obama of military advisers, most likely including special forces; the arming of Kurds by the United States, Britain, France and possibly others; the departure of Nuri al-Maliki as prime minister of Iraq; and the Kurdish Autonomous Region’s growing oil trade and strategic ties with Israel. All point in the same direction.

These actions appear to be part of a common agenda. It will weaken the Iraqi state’s authority; embolden claims of Kurdish independence; strengthen Israel’s foothold which it has long sought in Iraq; and stir up unrest in the Kurdish populations of Iran, Turkey, and Syria which lies in ruins; ignite tensions, potentially conflict, between a Kurdish state, once its secession is complete, and a truncated Iraq.

Success of the scheme will mean a setback against Iran’s strategic interests, because its Shia neighbour Iraq will then be a smaller and weaker entity. Consequently, the United States its allies that they will have secured a firmer grip in the region.

[END]

The people of Gaza deserve our support

Middle East Eye

Words lose their meaning when the human conscience sinks to a new low of barbarity and falsehood. What Israel has done in the besieged Palestinian enclave of Gaza has little to do with self-defence or preservation. John Dugard, renowned international law professor who has served on many UN bodies and international inquiries, has comprehensively debunked the myth of Israel’s right of self-defence.

In fact, what Israel has committed is a month-long orgy of massacres in which Palestinian civilians holed up in refugee camps, hospitals and UN schools were slaughtered indiscriminately. The notion of Israeli Defense Forces launching pinpoint attacks is patently a lie, given the very high number of civilian deaths including those of children as a result of repeated hits on UN compounds. The UN said that the Israelis were given advance information of the locations of those premises.

While the Israeli Defense Forces, made up of reservists and settlers living in the occupied Palestinian land, were using some of the most lethal weaponry, families inside Israel set up their sofas on hilltops. As the Guardian newspaper reported, they came out with bottles of bear, soft drinks and snacks to cheer, whoop and whistle as the sun was about to set over the Mediterranean, and bombs came down on Palestinian slums a few miles away. Many spectators had smartphones to record explosions, or to take pictures of themselves, grinning and thumbs up, against a background of black smoke.

At the same time, the Israeli government’s spokesman-in-chief, Mark Regev, was telling the world in bulletin after bulletin that people in Israel were in mortal danger of Hamas rockets, hiding in underground bunkers and shaking with fear.

That our moral decline has sunk to these depths is a sad reflection on humanity. Bloodshed in Gaza by Israel’s firepower has become almost a ritual in recent years. Even so, the violence this time, and gloating in Israel, go against claims more than before that Israel is a civilised democracy wedded to western values of liberalism and the rule of law.

Let us take the rule of law and claims of the Israeli military’s professionalism. In his Al Jazeera opinion column, John Dugard writes about a dark contradiction. The Israelis accept that Gaza is not an independent state like Lebanon and Jordan, but assert that Gaza is a “hostile entity”. Dugard rightly points out that such a concept is unknown in international law.

Israel cannot explain this strange contradiction of its own making – a device to have it both ways. Gaza is separated from the West Bank and thus more isolated, but remains part of the occupied Palestinian Territories. For despite the withdrawal of Israeli troops and settlers from the strip in 2005, Gaza’s land and sea borders are sealed by Israel on three sides, and by Egypt on the remaining fourth. There is no freedom of movement, because all travel and transportation between Gaza and the rest of the world can take place only when Israel and Egypt permit. So people resort to underground tunnels at great risk to themselves.

Such tight control of 1.8 million people by two most powerful countries in the region can only be described as occupation, as the International Court of Justice and other United Nations bodies have recognised. Israel has a legal duty under law to respect civilian life. Yet by restricting movement and supplies, and bombing civilian targets and what infrastructure is left there, Israel continues to commit crimes under international law.

It is undeniable that those living in Gaza have the right to resist occupation and the right to self-defence under such intolerable conditions. Any ceasefire that becomes yet another means of continued occupation is utterly meaningless and deceitful. Governments and leaders who support Israel’s right to defend itself are surely lacking the basic sense of reality, for it is actually the population of Gaza that has a legitimate right of defence. This writer’s deep sympathies are with Gaza’s residents.

The United States and President Barack Obama in particular bear a heavy responsibility for the carnage. Israel stands accused of committing gross violations of international humanitarian law and law governing occupation before the world. Still, Israel continues this behaviour with impunity. The primary reason is the certainty that the United States will block any meaningful attempt to condemn and hold Israel accountable.

Obama’s parroting of “Israel’s right to defend itself” is shameless and cynical. His disregard for Israel’s crimes against Gaza, and the West Bank, is callous. Here we have a US president who brazenly repeats the Israeli prime minister’s slogans of war against millions of Palestinians living under occupation. He then goes on to bomb Iraq, ostensibly to protect a few hundred American lives, and members of the Yazidi minority from Islamist insurgents, whose rise is a direct consequence of America’s wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other places.

The man is supremely manipulative and a lazy thinker. The truth which he must surely know is how many Christians and Jews, indeed other minorities, have been killed or have fled Iraq since the 2003 US invasion of that country.

Others are culpable, too. The British Prime Minister David Cameron’s silence over the bloodshed in Gaza goes against the growing unease in his own Conservative Party, and the public at large. The European Union is incapable of taking a stand independent of the United States. And we have a Secretary-General of the United Nations who cannot stand up to American pressure.

South America has shown more guts. Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador and El Salvador have all condemned Israel, and recalled their ambassadors. But India’s Hindu nationalist-dominated government has restricted debate in parliament because of close defence and intelligence ties with Israel.

The government asserts that there is no change in India’s long-standing policy in support of the Palestinians’ rights. But when a newly-elected government is reluctant to allow a proper debate in parliament in a democracy, its moral authority is eroded. Credibility is an essential ingredient of the national interest. A government must understand that when its credibility is questioned, other aspects of its foreign relations are at risk.

Thankfully, India has a functioning democratic system, and a diverse population with more than 180 million Muslims in the country. So when the United Nations Human Rights Council voted to launch an investigation into the Israeli offensive on Gaza, the Indian government chose to stand with a clear majority supporting the inquiry.

The United States was alone in voting against the Human Rights Council resolution. Still, Washington remains determined to block any attempt to hold accountable its Middle Eastern outpost where it matters – in the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice. In this unequal war, the people of Gaza deserve our support. 

[END] 

Why Israel is backing Kurdish independence

Middle East Eye

Developments pointing towards the possibility of an independent Kurdish state raise new questions about Middle East politics, as well as the possibility of a major transformation of the region in years to come.

The history of the Middle East has been determined by events which initially seemed localised and relatively minor, before acquiring great significant and causing many upheavals in the long run. It appears that the region may be heading for yet another transformational change which may, in turn, invite comparisons with the events after World War I that shaped the Middle East of today.

The Kurdish people claim to have lived in the same land for more than 2,000 years. Their land has been divided by imperial manoeuvres. They have struggled against oppression and persecution for almost a century. Now, Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, says that he is going to hold a referendum on independence in coming months.

The outcome is going to be a foregone conclusion. The referendum will result in a vote for an independent Kurdish state north of a truncated Iraq. The prospect is tantalising for many Kurds, persecuted for decades in a land which was divided by imperial powers between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey almost a century ago. At the same time, external powers in the region and afar will be eyeing for the consequences with a sense of delight or foreboding, depending on their own interests.

It is worth considering what has brought the idea of Kurdish independence so close to realisation. In recent months, communities in the autonomous Kurdistan Region have witnessed a growing Sunni Arab uprising in western and central Iraq, including areas around the capital Baghdad and near the autonomous Kurdish Region itself. Kurdish Peshmerga have been deployed outside Iraqi Kurdistan to block Sunni rebel advances, and defend Kurdistan’s borders. Iraq’s Kurdish population is bound to view freedom as too precious to lose, having won autonomy after the fall of Saddam Hussein at the end of a very long struggle.

The widespread alienation of Sunni Arabs caused by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policies, and the Sunni rebellion of late, have raised the prospect of Iraq’s formal breakup into Shia and Sunni mini-states. That prospect comes with risks as well as opportunities, not only for Iraqi Kurds, but for the Kurdish population throughout the region, especially in Iran, Syria and Turkey – three other countries with large concentrations of Kurdish communities.

Watching these developments in Iraq, and calculating their possible ramifications, the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has thrown the cat among the pigeons. Only a few days after the first tanker carrying crude oil produced in the autonomous Kurdish Region arrived at the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashkelon, bypassing areas under Iraqi government control, Netanyahu made his announcement of support for Kurdish independence. Netanyahu’s words must be music to Kurdish leaders’ ears.

The notion that the Israeli prime minister’s expression of support originates from a common history of oppression and persecution of both Jews and Kurds is a sign of naive thinking. For there are Israeli calculations at play to shape a new geopolitical reality that will be more favourable to Israel’s own interests and ambitions in the Middle East.

An independent Kurdish state is a matter of great importance to its people. However from Prime Minister Netanyahu’s perspective, such an event would accelerate the disintegration of the present Iraqi state. Since the 2003 US invasion, Iraq is already a much weaker power in the region. Further partition would result in at least three mini-states – Kurdish, and possibly Sunni and Shiite, triggered by a sharpening divide between them. The process may set in motion further balkanisation of Iraq, creating an Afghanistan, Syria or Libya type situation. In the Israeli prime minister’s calculations, that scenario would enhance Israel’s status as the regional superpower. It would give Israel a carte blanche to intervene. But is it going to make Israel more secure?

The implications of Netanyahu’s scheme would not be limited to Iraq’s partition into smaller, mutually hostile, states. He knows that many Kurdish people aspire for independence from Iran, Turkey, even Syria. Once Iraqi Kurds secede, it would embolden their brethren in those countries. The idea of greater Kurdistan is going to be a powerful agent, and confrontations with the central authorities in Ankara and Tehran will follow. Kurdish communities in Syria have been left to their own devices amid war.

Much of Syria lies in ruins. Its state structure and military are under great strain. Once a powerful and uncompromising adversary of Israel, Syria’s future hangs in the balance, and the country no longer poses a credible challenge to Israel. Syria’s destruction has left three more regional powers to neutralise – Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Netanyahu’s open support for an independent Kurdish state is a start on that strategy.

Iran, too, is on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s target list. Israel’s relationship with Iran was close before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic, the two countries have been at loggerheads. Tehran’s nuclear programme and its support for the Palestinians are the main causes of the Iranian-Israeli animus.

Netanyahu’s advocacy for action against Iran has been particularly aggressive in recent years, and President Barack Obama’s attempts for some kind of rapprochement with Tehran is a source of disagreement between Israel and the United States. The creation of an independent Kurdish state in Iraq may encourage similar demands from the Kurdish population in western Iranian provinces of Kordestan, Karmanshah and West Azerbaijan. If Netanyahu’s scheme succeeds, those demands will fuel the discontent in the Kurdish and other minorities of Iran. They may even lead to conflict. Iran’s preoccupation with any worsening of the internal situation will suit Netanyahu.

Israel has serious issues with Turkey as well. Their relations have suffered a sharp decline since the Turkish government denounced Israel’s Gaza War in 2008-2009. A major crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations came when the Israeli commandos raided a flotilla of ships in the open Mediterranean Sea carrying humanitarian supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip. Nine Turkish activists, including a Turkish-American with dual citizenship, were killed in the incident. Relations between Turkey and Israel have not recovered since. Both sides remain adamant, and there are scores to be settled. Ankara’s difficulties in the Kurdish south-eastern region of Turkey will be of considerable interest to Israel.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement of support for an independent Kurdistan is interesting in one particular respect – he is vague about the boundaries of such a state. His words seem carefully calculated, leaving a number of possibilities as to the size and shape of a Kurdish independent entity. The statement may well be designed to raise anxiety in Ankara, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus. It is certainly a recipe for upheaval in future.

The modern Middle East, with Israel as a Jewish state in Palestine, emerged as a result of Anglo-French carve up of the region as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement of May 1916, and a promise made for the creation of a Jewish state under the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. The idea of Kurdish independence within borders not yet specified, and the decision to hold a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, raise the prospect of momentous transformational changes in years to come. Exactly what forces are behind the scheme remains shrouded in mystery. We know only that the idea has come from the prime minister of Israel, and has been seized by Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani. How events unfold from now on is going to be of interest to many in concerned capitals and beyond.

[END]

What is happening in Iraq?

Indian Council of World Affairs

The escalating crisis of recent weeks in Iraq has brought the country under new spotlight. A militant group widely described in the media as the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has captured a number of cities and towns from government forces in northern and central Iraq. More territory is contested. ISIS successes include Mosul close to Iraqi Kurdistan, areas around Baghdad in the central Anbar province, Fallujah, Ramadi, Samarra and Tikrit. Some places have fallen to ISIS after fighting. Others have been lost because Iraqi government troops, depleted by low morale and mass desertions, have simply withdrawn. The Iraqi map, already fragmented, looks more divided than before as a result of the latest rise in militancy.

A decade after the United States invaded Iraq to overthrew President Saddam Hussein and created a new political structure, these events pose a stubborn challenge to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government. Reports in the international media put the blame squarely on ISIS. The organisation is described as an offshoot of, and more brutal than, al-Qaeda, which has actually disowned the group. Last February, a message posted on Islamist websites said the leadership of al-Qaeda had announced that ISIS was “not a branch of al-Qaeda, nor does it have an organisational relationship with al-Qaeda network.” Some have also claimed that ISIS grew out of a previous militant group, the Islamic State of Iraq, whose leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed in a US air strike north of Baghdad in June 2006.

The names of al-Qaeda and those supposedly associated with it have a particular resonance in the American psyche. Think tanks within the Washington Beltway and the Obama administration have described the unfolding scenario in Iraq as a threat to the region and America’s interest. President Obama, cautious and calculative, has ordered the despatch of special forces as “military advisors” to Iraq, but seems reluctant to go much further. He has himself quashed speculation that he may order air attacks against militants unless, he says, there is an accord on Sunni inclusion in Iraq. The experience after the 2003 invasion still haunts America. Usually reliable sources say Obama wants Prime Minister Maliki out as a price for bailing out the Iraqi government. Will Maliki step down easily? Or if he is forced out, what will be the repercussions?

A complex picture
The situation in Iraq is a lot more complex than reports in the media convey, and the local reality does not get the attention it deserves. That fighters from outside, including Syria, are infiltrating Iraq’s porous borders is not in doubt, but Iraqi Sunnis, too, are part of the rebellion. ISIS is known to be well entrenched in Syria, fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, as well as more moderate anti-government groups. From northern and central Syria, militants can move to Ramadi, Fallujah and areas around Baghdad along the Euphrates with relative ease. Mosul, north of the Iraqi capital, is within reach.

ISIS has made some effort to win the hearts and minds of local residents where the group dominates, but its strict application of Sharia law has also alienated communities. The conduct of ISIS brings mixed results for the group. ISIS tends to harness discontent in areas of Sunni population that has become alienated because of the central government’s discriminatory policies. However, the sentiment is different in secular Sunni and Shia communities.

Maliki’s sectarian policy
In many ways, the crisis for Prime Minister Maliki is of his own making. For the rebels could not have achieved such military successes in a wide area of Iraq without local support. Sunni communities in many parts of the country, once dominant in Saddam Hussein’s power structure, have found themselves increasingly side-lined under Maliki’s rule. Within days of America’s military withdrawal in December 2011, ending eight years of occupation, Iraq’s Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi was accused of organising murder squads and terrorism and fled to Turkey. Hashemi was later sentenced to death in absentia.
Maliki’s increasingly sectarian approach since America’s withdrawal has caused deep alienation in the Sunni minority.

To say that the challenge to Iraq’s Shia-dominated government is from ISIS alone is a partial truth. The reality is that not only does ISIS enjoy local support, there are rebellions by Iraqi Sunnis across the country. This explains why Mosul fell without much fighting. The Iraqi army withdrew after a period of tension and uncertainty. Mosul’s Sunni residents, who resent Maliki’s rule, were left behind. There was hardly any resistance from the Sunni population of Mosul.

No plain-sailing for rebels
The Iraqi government’s authority was already weak because the country is a much reduced entity. The alienation of Sunnis caused by Maliki’s policy has further eroded his control to the extent that questions are being asked about his future. Nonetheless, predictions in the western press that Baghdad could soon fall to Sunni rebel forces are exaggerated.

ISIS has no doubt made dramatic gains in a short time, but its victories have been limited to Sunni areas. Baghdad today is overwhelmingly Shia except a few neighbourhoods. Shia militias operate with Shia-dominated security forces. Baghdad is hit by suicide bombings from time to time, but a physical takeover of the capital by Sunni rebels seems a far-fetched idea for now. A more likely scenario is continuous weakening of central government control over large parts of the country, thereby making the Iraqi government even more vulnerable and prone to foreign pressure.

America’s return to Iraqi theatre
Events have come full circle in Iraq for the United States. When American forces invaded the country in 2003, they supported the Shia population and pulverised Sunni areas in Baghdad and elsewhere. When the American military subsequently encountered fierce Shia resistance, the Bush administration switched sides. With American help, Sunni tribal militias were created under the umbrella of Sahwa (Sons of Iraq) in 2005 to counter Shia opposition.

Prime Minister Maliki has persistently refused to integrate Sunni tribal militias into the state security forces while packing the Iraqi military and police with Shia loyalists across all ranks. By the end of 2013, the Sahwa militias had become non-existence. Most militiamen were unemployed or had joined ISIS, contributing to the deep Sunni resentment against Maliki’s government and causing the problems he faces today. Now, the United States is again supporting the Shia-dominated Iraqi government, by despatching special forces to begin with, to quell the Sunni rebellion spreading across northern and central Iraq. These alliances are little more than marriages of convenience between disgruntled Sunni communities of Iraq and some foreign fighters on one hand, and the beleaguered Iraqi government and President Obama on the other.

Will these marriages last and Iraq be stabilised? There must be serious doubts. Assassinations of suspected militants with special forces’ help, or high altitude bombing, do not have a good record of success. Maliki, or his successor, will need to adopt an inclusive policy. Even then, there will remain competing interests of Saudi Arabia, other Arab countries and Turkey on one hand, and Iran and Syria on the other. Major powers, the United States and Russia, will continue to vie for influence in the Middle East. Iraq is likely to remain unstable.

[END]

From Strange to Bizarre: The Mutations of Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy

CounterPunch

President Barack Obama and his officials are saying some very strange things about events in the Middle East and Ukraine. The White House was loud in its support for factions who were united only in opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych. The Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s leaked telephone conversation with the American ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, revealed much more about how the State Department was secretly plotting for regime change in Kiev before Yanukovych was abruptly removed from power in a political coup in February.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington in December 2013, Nuland admitted that the United States had spent five billion dollars since Ukraine became independent following the Soviet Union’s breakup in 1991 in “developing democratic institutions and skills in promoting civil society” and what she described as “a good form of government.” Nuland claimed that all of it was necessary to “achieve the objectives of Ukraine’s European.”

After the opposition takeover in Kiev, the referendum in Crimea where people voted in overwhelming numbers to join the Russian Federation, and the wishes of Russian minorities in the east, brought a very different response from Washington. The Crimean referendum was denounced as illegal and a sham. Ukraine remains in turmoil. Russia on one hand, and the United States and the European Union on the other, are locked in a struggle for influence in Ukraine. It is a struggle whose final outcome is far from certain.

In Syria, devastated by three-years of civil war, with external powers pouring oil in the conflict, President Bashar al-Assad has also won an overwhelming victory. Fears of the Crimean and Russian minorities in the new Ukraine are understandable. For Ukraine is a broken and vulnerable state, with armed far-right and left groups dominating parts of the country where anarchy rules. Western governments seem obsessed about freedom and democracy, but we hardly hear about security and welfare of Ukraine’s minorities. In Syria, the civil war has extracted a very high toll. If the western narrative was to be believed, then all Syrians are united against Assad, so any election leading to his victory must be fraudulent.

The Assad dynasty has ruled Syria with the iron fist for decades. The dynasty might well have been overthrown in the uprising which began in 2011 if a better alternative was present. The truth is that many of Syria’s minorities, Christians, Jews, Druze, Kurds and Assad’s own Alawites, are terrified by the cruelty of, and conflict within, Assad’s opponents, foreign Salafists in particular. Three years since the uprising began, Western governments, US, British and French, are in a strange situation of their own making. They have lent moral and material support to the enemies of Assad, but are weary and worried of them, for anti-Assad fighters are no lovers of the Western governments and values they preach. What has happened in Libya is a lesson.

History shows that great powers, instead of learning from mistakes, keep repeating the same follies. Ceaseless ideological propaganda, whatever its origin and nature, makes a feeble cover for real motives.

Assad’s victory was by a whopping margin – he secured nearly 89 percent of the vote. It was a win like any other dictator’s, but there is little doubt that many Syrians were scared of the other side, and preferred Assad. The American Secretary of State John Kerry, smarting from his debacle in the Israel-Palestinian talks which were sunk by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quickly moved on. Syria provided an escape route. Kerry described Assad’s victory as “meaningless” and “a great big zero.”

It gets more and more bizarre. Nearly a year after Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi overthrew the country’s elected President Mohammed Morsi and abolished the fragile political order which had evolved after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow, there was another presidential election at the end of May. Thousands were killed and even more thrown into jail in the months before. Sisi took 97 percent of the vote, virtually the whole country, while Muslim Brotherhood leaders and supporters languish in jail. If Assad’s election was “meaningless” and a “great big zero” for the Obama administration, then think of Sisi’s victory margin?

When a ruthless dictator and America’s proxy is in trouble, Washington is slow to respond to events, hoping that the dictator will eventually overcome opposition and it will be all right in the end. South Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Egypt and beyond, examples are aplenty. More than three decades after the fall of the Shah of Iran and President Jimmy Carter’s bungled handling of the crisis in what was America’s policeman in the Persian Gulf, Barack Obama faced a similar crisis in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak was in trouble. Obama dithered.

Mubarak’s rule collapsed under relentless popular pressure, but while the military had disintegrated with the fall of the shah in Iran, the Egyptian armed forces remained intact. Egypt’s 2011 revolution was incomplete in comparison with the Iranian revolution of 1979. The military-led counterrevolution in 2013 has taken Egypt back to the Mubarak era.

For a country born out of a revolution, the United States is remarkably counterrevolutionary. Now that Egypt is again ruled by a former army chief, the White House has said that President Obama is looking forward to working with Sisi “to advance our strategic partnership and the many interests shared by the United States and Egypt.” The White House claimed that “elections [there] were held in accordance with Egyptian law.”

That Egyptian law, which Obama has so readily accepted as the basis of a closer relationship with Sisi’s government, originates from a constitution which has been heavily criticized for granting the military sweeping powers. The 2014 constitution was introduced after a coup which overthrew Egypt’s freely elected president, abolished parliament and abrogated the 2012 constitution, approved by the Egyptian electorate in a far more relaxed political environment. In cozying up with Sisi, Obama denies that there was ever a coup.

Never mind Obama’s idealism and soaring rhetoric – that was a long time ago, five years ago in fact. Now it is time to build a legacy, so he will do anything. Obama’s foreign policy is a charade.

Continue reading

Disquiet grows in US over Egypt policy

Middle East Eye

America’s relationship with the military regime of Egypt and President Barack Obama’s keenness to give military aid to that country have created acrimony between the administration and Congress.

The dispute goes beyond Washington, with Obama’s Middle East policy coming under increasing criticism at home and abroad. There are warnings that his administration may be creating more international enemies.

A recent op-ed by Robert Kagan in the Washington Post on 2 May is one example. A leading neoconservative thinker, Kagan was one of the founders of the Project for the New American Century that called for regime change in Iraq and a strategy of America securing global control. Kagan’s wife, Victoria Nuland, is now a senior State Department official in the Obama administration.

Kagan says that far from helping in the struggle against terrorism, as the Egyptian military dictatorship and its supporters claim, the military’s “brutal crackdown on Egypt’s Islamists is creating a new generation of terrorists”. The Muslim Brotherhood did use violence against protestors, he continues, but that is nothing compared with the military’s killing of thousands and jailing of tens of thousands since overthrowing president Mohamed Morsi.

Kagan goes on to warn that the crackdown in which hundreds may be sentenced to death after a trial barely lasting an hour will convince some Islamists to believe that their only choice is to kill or be killed.

His conclusion is that Egypt’s new military strongman, former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can never bring stability, no matter how ruthless he becomes. America’s current policy is only bringing closer the day of the next revolution, and that revolution will be a “more radical and virulent anti-American event than the last one”.

President Obama’s intention to send military aid to Egypt and bitter criticism from a leading neoconservative hawk such as Robert Kagan look strange. The White House plans to supply Egypt with Apache attack helicopters, arguing that they are needed to fight “terrorism” in the Sinai peninsula. Obama wants to give $650 million worth of additional aid to Egypt’s military regime. Moreover, the administration says that Egypt is abiding by the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

All of this must be music to Sisi’s ears, but represents a sad turning in Barack Obama’s journey from soaring idealism to Machiavellian behaviour. Political expediency and short-termism have triumphed over idealism in this journey.

Congressional unease over Obama’s Middle East policy has turned into open rebellion. Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that oversees foreign aid, has told the White House that he would not approve American aid to the Egyptian military.

In particular, Senator Leahy has denounced a summary trial which ended in an Egyptian court sentencing 683 people to death, including the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie. Leahy said that he would remain opposed until he could see “convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law”.

Given the Obama administration’s eagerness to supply Egypt’s military rulers with weapons and economic aid, it was odd indeed that the White House expressed alarm over the court’s ruling when the United Nation did so. As severe measures continue against opposition supporters, a powerful insurgency is building up in Egypt. It is especially concentrated in the Sinai peninsula.

The overall character of President Obama’s predecessor George W Bush was distinctly aggressive in military terms. Since the heady days of Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, American policy has undergone a Machiavellian transformation. His pronouncements often do not match facts on the ground.

The Foreign Assistance Act requires that the United States cut aid to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree”. President Obama, however, concluded soon after Morsi was deposed by the military in July 2013 that the White House was not “legally required” to decide whether Egypt’s president was the victim of a coup. An unnamed administration official told the New York Times at the time: “We will not say it was a coup, we will not say it was not a coup, we will just not say [anything]”.

It was like showing green light to Sisi. With each hint of suspension of aid and every expression of “concern” over Egypt’s worsening situation comes something that gives succour to Egypt’s military junta. More than three years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak and a brief democratic interlude, it now looks inevitable that Sisi will be “elected” the country’s new leader at the end of this month.

The election will be an extremely restricted exercise. It will be a reminder of the worst days of the Mubarak era. Sisi will be “endorsed” by an overwhelming majority, with no more than a tiny percentage of votes going against him.

The truth about today’s Egypt is that the real opposition is either in jail or has been forced underground if its supporters have not been killed already. Meanwhile in the United States, influential voices are engaged in a perfunctory exercise to express the mildest of unease with demands that America must ensure that the next Egyptian government “makes good on the people’s demands for a free and prosperous society”, as was written by Evan Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Foreign Policy Initiative, in an op-ed piece published by US News and World Report on 8 May.

As Sisi pursues his repressive policies against Islamist and liberal opponents alike, the Obama administration is advised by these voices to “strategically leverage US assistance to incentivize Cairo to adopt vital political and economic reforms”.

Emboldened by Obama’s refusal to acknowledge that Morsi’s overthrow was a coup, Sisi now says that democracy will take at least 25 years to bring to Egypt, and that too if stability can be restored. Bizarrely, he has described the overthrow of Mubarak in 2011 and Morsi in 2013 as major steps towards democracy.

In less than a year since overthrowing the elected political order which had emerged after a people’s revolution, Sisi has moved to crush Egypt’s largest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. He has outflanked liberals, many of whom are also on his target list. Egyptians are bracing themselves for another long era dominated by a military dictator, who at 59 years of age could maintain his iron grip for a long time. Sisi has President Obama to thank for this gift.

[END]