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 TeasersPatrick Cockburn Blogview

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Future historians may well pick 2019 as a decisive year in the decline of the US and UK as world powers. Of course, the UK started at a much lower level in the international pecking order than the US, but the direction of travel in both cases is the same.

This geopolitical shift comes exactly a century after the Treaty of Versailles, in 1919, when the US and UK were at the peak of their power in determining the fate of nations after the First World War. They self-confidently redrew the map of eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa according to their own interests and with minimal concern about the effect on others.

Like most political retreats, the present one by the US and UK is masked by patriotic bombast about “Making America Great Again” or launching a post-Brexit “Global Britain”.

In the case of the US, the retreat from hegemony was made manifest this year when Iran carried out a devastating drone and missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in September. Though a blatant act of war against an important US ally, Donald Trump, the US president, swiftly decided that it was not in America’s interests to retaliate. He may be putting maximum economic pressure on Iran, but he made clear he is not going to fight a war against them.

In October, it was the turn of the Syrian Kurds to become the next victims of the new American realpolitik when Trump greenlighted a Turkish invasion of northern Syria. Despite having fought heroically and lost 10,000 dead as the US on-the-ground ally in the fight against Isis, the Kurds suffered immediate and predictable ethnic cleansing by Turkey.

The fate of the Saudis and Kurds carried a message about future American actions in the world that was ignored by a largely Trump-bashing media. Dismissing Trump’s foreign policy as crazy and self-serving, establishment critics seldom take on board that, in its crude way, the president’s actions do reflect a changed world order in which the US has lost its old supremacy.

Brutal, shambolic, even treacherous, Trump’s foreign ventures may be, but they often have a core of realism, whether he is dealing with South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria or Ukraine. The so-called “grown-ups”, usually military or diplomatic Washington bureaucrats who are protecting their fiefdoms and detest Trump, are often proposing alternative actions in the Middle East or Ukraine that carry a high risk of starting wars that Trump does not want to fight or the US cannot easily win.

None of the Nato leaders gathered in their hotel in Watford this week seemed to have taken on board the lessons of the failed US-led military in the Middle East since Bill Clinton intervened so disastrously in Somalia in 1993 – a war that is still going on.

Trump, likewise, may not know much about the half-dozen militarily conflicts currently raging in the Middle East and North Africa (Mena), but he does see that they are “messy” and “endless” and that America would be well advised to stay out of them.

Significantly, Barack Obama also recognised the ebbing of America’s global hegemony and tried to stall – not always successfully – the enthusiasm for military action inside and outside his administration in Washington. Coming from different directions, both Obama and Trump recognised that the era when the US was the sole superpower that could always expect to get its way is now over.

Trump might easily have gone to war with Iran after a series of Iranian attacks in the Gulf over the course of the summer, culminating in the drone and missile assault on the Saudi oil industry. Sensibly, he decided not to retaliate, demonstrating the new limits on America’s willingness and ability to defend its allies.

The US has lost power, but then it has a lot more to lose than Britain, which saw a much steeper decline in its potential influence in the world in 2019. This had everything to do with impending Brexit as it became clear over the course of the year that the country would indeed be leaving the EU.

It is usually argued that, given the length and complexity of the transition period, Britain will not be really leaving the EU for some time. But the formal act of leaving will have immense impact and immediately diminish British influence in the world.

This is partly because the rest of the world sees Brexit as an act of self-destructive folly, given that 45 per cent of British exports went to EU countries in 2018, compared to only 18 per cent to the US. Suddenly, the country will be without real allies for the first time for over 200 years – historians say the last such moment was during some particularly dire moment during the Napoleonic wars.

Brexit supporters who enthuse about “global Britain” have been wilfully blind to the real balance of power between Britain and the EU as revealed by the withdrawal agreement. It should be obvious that British negotiators failed to get the terms they wanted because their EU counterparts in Brussels held all the high cards.

None of this is going to change: there is something ludicrous about Boris Johnson trumpeting his triumph in reopening the withdrawal agreement when he was only able to do so by accepting the EU’s original proposal of a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK and deserting his DUP allies.

At the beginning of 2019, it looked possible that the whole Brexit project might falter or be carried through in a neutered form, but as next week’s general election approaches it looks increasingly inevitable. Britain will be mired in a Brexit crisis of one sort or another for the foreseeable future, trying to establish a new relationship with the EU and the US, both of whom are more powerful and capable of getting their way than the UK.

The general election will be the point of no return for Britain in the current phase of its decline. Could it be saved from self-willed and self-destructive isolation by a stronger alliance with Trump’s America? Anybody looking for an American rescue should understand that, for different reasons than Britain, the US is also in decline – and remember what just happened to the Saudis and Syrian Kurds.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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Protesters in Iraq have won their first big success by forcing the resignation of the Iraqi prime minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, after the killing of 45 unarmed protesters by the Iraqi security forces in a single day. As the news spread, the crack of celebratory fireworks replaced that of gunshots in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, which has been the epicentre of demonstrations since they began two months ago.

The impending departure of Mahdi is a symbolic victory for the protests, but too many people have been killed for it to quell what is close to a mass uprising by the majority Shia community. He had proved an ineffectual leader and the entire ruling elite in Iraq is probably too corrupt and too determined to hang on to power to make the radical reforms demanded by the protesters.

The announcement that the prime minister was stepping down came after 36 hours in which the security forces had switched from killing individual demonstrators to massacres on a larger scale – with as many as 50 people shot dead on a bridge in the southern city of Nasiriya – bringing the number killed to 408, as well as thousands more wounded, since 1 October.

Compare this horrific casualty list over eight weeks with that in Hong Kong, where just one protester has been killed and one has died accidentally since protests started six months ago. Compare also the vast and sympathetic publicity given to the Hong Kong protests with the limited interest in the savage and unprecedented government clampdown in Iraq.

Probably the world has got used to Iraqis being murdered in large numbers, whether it is by Isis, Saddam Hussein or the US air force, so it is no longer considered news.

But history is made by unreported massacres. “It plants hatred in the heart,” a Palestinian once said of a mass killing by Israeli troops decades ago in Gaza in which his uncle had been killed.

The violence is seen as only affecting Iraqis, but it has the potential to reshape the politics of the Middle East. Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, one of the most powerful political and military forces in the region has been the increasing strength of Shia communities under Iranian leadership. Over the last 40 years, this coalition has outfought and outmanoeuvred enemies such as the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and, above all, in Iraq.

The importance of the Iraq-Iran alliance is so great because two-thirds of Iraq’s 38 million population are Shia and it has a 900-mile-long border with Iran. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq has had a Shia-dominated government that usually acted in unison with Iran. Iraqi Shia differ in many respects from their Iranian co-religionists, but they have seen them until recently as an essential ally in the struggle with Isis. The holiest Shia shrines are in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala, to which millions of Iranian pilgrims flood every year.

But in the last two months, this victorious, Iranian-led Shia coalition has been fractured as pro-Iranian sections of the Iraqi security services and paramilitary groups repeatedly shot down Shias protesting about the lack of jobs, inadequate social services and pervasive corruption on the part of Iraq’s ruling elite. These protests were initially on a small scale and only gained momentum because of the government’s overreaction to what was at first a very minor threat.

From the first, there was little effort to conceal the role of Iran in masterminding the repression. Reports surfaced at an early stage that General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force – the foreign arm of the Revolutionary Guards in Iran – had decided that the protests were part of a foreign plot and the best way to deal with them was with “a whiff of grapeshot”.

Many generals in history have thought the same thing and, through violent but failed repression, have turned limited expressions of discontent into open revolts. In the Iraqi case, the protesters became virulently anti-Iranian.

The outcome of the counterproductive and futile attempts by pro-Iranian forces in Iraq to crush the protests may be the beginnings of a sea change in the politics of the Middle East. The previously triumphant alliance of the Iranian and Iraqi Shia – a coalition that had seen off the US and its allies – may be irretrievably broken. The Iranians and their Iraqi allies have done more to break the link between the two countries in the last eight weeks than Washington and Riyadh succeeded in doing in years of trying.

Why did Iran overreact? President Trump’s policy of “maximum pressure” on Iran has not proved very successful, but it has made the Iranian leadership, always paranoid and prone to conspiracy theories, nervous and likely to exaggerate anything that looks like a threat. Paradoxically, this feeling of vulnerability on the part of Iran is linked to a sense of hubris born out of its repeated victories in proxy wars in the region.

But these successes produced a new weakness in the Iranian-led Shia coalition: it acquired an interest in Lebanon, Iraq and Syria in maintaining the political status quo, however unjust, corrupt and incompetent it might be. In Iraq, for instance, the predominantly Shia ruling class might once have been heroic opponents of Saddam Hussein, but they have long since transmuted into a dysfunctional kleptocracy that is hostile to reform.

Shia leaders rebuffed critics of their failings by appealing to communal solidarity against existential threats from al-Qaeda-type groups, but that excuse lost traction in the last few years as Isis was defeated. In Iraq, the discontent goes particularly deep because much of the Shia population – the Sunni and Kurds have kept out of it – wonders why they are without jobs, water and electricity in a country that earns $7bn a month from oil exports.

The departure of Adel Abdul-Mahdi as prime minister is unlikely to defuse the protests, because the Iraqi state is probably incapable of reforming itself. An alternative for the government is full-scale repression: trying to stamp out dissent by killing or arresting protesters. But that option has failed so far because the protesters have shown heroic resolve in continuing to demonstrate despite being shot down and without taking up arms themselves – though most Iraqi families own one or more guns. The protesters can see that militarisation of the crisis would be much in the government’s interest, because it could then justify its use of lethal force. But this self-restraint will not last forever and there have already been so many deaths as to “plant hatred in the hearts” of many Iraqis that will not disappear.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Iraq 
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Iran has condemned the burning of its consulate in the Shia holy city of Najaf as Iraqi security forces escalate violence against protesters, who increasingly see the Iranian authorities as responsible for the repression.

Anti-government protests that started on 1 October now in large part resemble a general uprising by the Shia majority in southern and central Iraq. The government crack-down has seen at least 350 people killed and 15,000 injured. A further 28 protesters were shot dead, 24 of them in the city of Nasiriya, and 165 were injured overnight.

In Baghdad, 4 protesters were killed and 22 were wounded, officials said Thursday.

The protesters who broke into the consulate in Najaf allowed the Iranian employees to escape unharmed, but took down the Iranian flag and replaced it with an Iraqi one. Elsewhere in Najaf, and in other southern Iraqi cities, they staged sit-ins, blocked roads and closed highways leading to Iraq’s two main ports at Umm Qasr and al-Zubair.

In the wake of the burning of its Najaf consulate, Tehran called for a “responsible, strong and effective” response by the Iraqi government.

Baghdad has vigorously but vainly tried to curtail news of the protests and of the killing of protesters by snipers, the moment of their deaths often captured by phone cameras. Though some nine TV channels have been shut and the internet closed for long periods, the suppression of information has turned out to be futile because unrest is too widespread to be isolated.

The burning of the Iranian consulate in the holy city of Najaf is particularly significant because it is the home of the Shia religious authorities headed by the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Its destruction is a sign that many Iraqi Shia have abandoned any sense of religious solidarity with Iran as a Shia state. Sistani has issued statements calling for government reforms and an end to violence by the security forces, but without avail.

The Iraqi political elite also appears to have concluded that it faces an existential threat and must crush the protests using all means possible. The burning of the Iranian consulate in Najaf, one of the two Shia shrine cities, the other being Karbala and both visited by millions of Iranian pilgrims every year, marks a fresh stage in the escalation of the crisis.

It is likely to provoke an even more violent reaction by the Iraqi military which says that it is setting up special military-civilian ‘crisis cells’ to ‘impose security and restore order’. This is despite the fact that shooting demonstrators dead has been counter-productive and only served to fuel popular anger.

The protests began on a small scale two months ago with demands for government action to provide jobs, end corruption and provide essential services such as electricity and water. The rallies were not unprecedented and there had been mass demonstrations with similar demands in Baghdad in 2016 and Basra in 2018, but in neither case had there been significant loss of life. This year, however, Iraqi riot police and pro-Iranian paramilitary forces opened fire into the crowds, killing at least ten people on the first day.

This violent over-reaction by the authorities turned a small protest into the biggest threat to the political status quo in Iraq since the US invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. From the beginning, snipers have shot unarmed protesters through the head and chest; paramilitary squads have wrecking TV stations and invaded hospitals treating injured protesters to beat and detain them. The correct number of fatalities is unknown, but is likely to be much higher than that admitted by the authorities.

The repression is reportedly being masterminded by the Iranian General Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the al-Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards. He appears to have prematurely activated pre-planned counter measures to be implemented by Iraqi government officials and paramilitary commanders close to Iran long before street protests posed any real threat to the status quo.

The fact that demonstrations are all in the Shia heartlands and not in Sunni or Kurdish areas that makes them particularly threatening to the Shia ruling elite. This has long had a reputation for syphoning off Iraq’s oil revenues, but for long many Shia were more concerned about the existential threat posed to their community by Isis.

The defeat of Isis in the nine-month long siege of Mosul in 2016/17 made Iraqi Shia feel safer, but it also allowed them to express their rage at lack of employment and basic facilities, despite their living in one of the world’s great oil producers, whose oil revenues totalled $7 billion in a single month earlier this year. Ominously, Isis claimed responsibility for three bombs in Baghdad – the first for months – that killed five people earlier this week.

Iran is likely to double-down in advocating – and probably orchestrating – increased repression as unrest continues to spread. Iranian leaders and their allies in Iraq promote a conspiracy theory, in which they most likely believe, that portrays anti-government and anti-Iranian attacks as the work of the proxies of foreign powers such as the US, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates. Given this interpretation of events, the repression can only get worse.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Iraq 
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Prince Andrew and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia have both had a bad week.

On the very same day that Prince Andrew was giving his disastrous interview explaining his relationship with the sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, the crown prince – often referred to as MbS – was hearing from international bankers about the failure of his bid to sell part of Aramco, the state oil company, for a high price on the international markets. The sale had been heralded as the moment when Saudi Arabia would use its oil wealth to exalt its status as a world power.

The two princes have many characteristics in common: both have a reputation for arrogance, ignoring expert advice and showing startlingly poor judgement in taking decisions. The result has been a dismally unsuccessful record for both men.

In the case of Prince Andrew, these failures have been on a limited scale thanks to his relative powerlessness beyond his immediate circle. But ever since his elderly father became king of Saudi Arabia in January 2015, MbS has been the effective ruler of his country.

And it is his performance in this role, his power enhanced by his appointment as crown prince in 2017, that explains in part why international investors baulked at buying even a small piece – only 1.5 per cent was on offer – of Aramco, the largest oil company in the world, at the high overall valuation of $2 trillion placed on it by the Saudis.

One factor fuelling their caution will be their perception that foreign investment in Saudi Arabia faces an enhanced political risk under MbS. His radical measures at home and abroad, so very different from traditional Saudi policies, have seldom succeeded and have sometimes ended in calamity.

These new departures introduced by MbS start in 2015 when, as defence minister, he launched a war in Yemen that was supposed to swiftly defeat the Houthi movement that held the capital Sanaa and much of the country.

Almost five years later, the Houthis are still there, but 100,000 Yemenis have been killed and 24 million of them – 80 per cent of the population – need humanitarian assistance. Lack of clean water sources, and the collapse of the medical system, both allegedly targeted by Saudi bombers, has led to 700,000 suspected cholera cases. The UN describes the food and health crisis in Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis on the planet.

At home, MbS had claimed that he would reform Saudi Arabia’s medieval and oppressive social norms, producing a more tolerant and freer society. But such modernisation as there has been, such as allowing women to drive, has turned out to be cosmetic, while repression has been all too real.

A planned expansion in the rights of women was well publicised abroad, but a Human Rights Watch report issued earlier this month, entitled The High Cost of Change: Repression Under Saudi Crown Prince Tarnishes Reforms, tells a different and much grimmer story, saying that “authorities had tortured four prominent Saudi women activists while in an unofficial detention centre, including by administering electric shocks, whipping the women on their thighs, forcible hugging and kissing and groping.”

As the price of their release, the activists were asked to sign a document and appear on television saying they had not been tortured.

Other reforms have followed the same pattern. In April 2016, MbS launched Vision 2030, an ambitious scheme to modernise the Saudi economy that attracted international plaudits. But the reality of the economic changes to be introduced became clear in November 2017 when leading businessmen and royal family members were confined, some being reportedly abused, as part of an alleged corruption inquiry in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh.

A few are still detained, while others were only released after handing over part or all of their business interests.

For a long period, MbS was treated gently by foreign governments greedy for Saudi contracts and by the foreign media, which bought into a PR picture of MbS as breaking the bonds of an archaic society. President Trump made a triumphal visit to Riyadh soon after his election and frequently tweeted his approval of all that MbS was doing – including his incarceration of the businessmen.

In terms of publicity, all went well enough until 2 October 2018 when a Saudi death squad murdered the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The crime is now admitted by the Saudi authorities, though they deny that MbS knew about the killing in advance – something asserted to the contrary by US senators briefed by US intelligence.

The Khashoggi killing and the grisly dismemberment of his body released a flood of criticism from which MbS has yet to recover. The dead journalist had said the year before his assassination that the crown prince had “promised an embrace of social and economic reform … but all I see now is the recent wave of arrests”.

The tainting of Saudi Arabia’s reputation by the Khashoggi affair, and the torrent of criticism that followed, played a role in deterring foreign investors from buying into Aramco at the price the Saudis wanted.

But what really undermined Saudi Arabia’s reputation for stability was the surprise Iranian/Houthi drone and missile attack on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities in September. As significant as the attack itself was Mr Trump’s refusal to retaliate against Iran. What had for so long seemed like a gold-plated US guarantee of Saudi security turned out to be nothing of the sort.

MbS is not going to be displaced because of these mistakes and miscalculations: when he was appointed heir to his father in 2017, the royal court purged and took over the entire Saudi security apparatus. On the other hand, the long list of self-destructive actions by the Saudi authorities in the last five years has left the country much less stable than it once appeared.

Prince Andrew’s take on the career of his fellow royal in Saudi Arabia would make interesting reading. Perhaps he looks on MbS’s absolute power and gigantic wealth with envy; he may even approve of the rigour with which his counterpart asserts his authority. This is not pure guesswork.

Andrew used to be a regular visitor to Saudi Arabia’s near neighbour and de facto protectorate, Bahrain, praising it as “as source of hope for many people in the world”. These kind words contrast with the report of an independent inquiry into the crushing of the Arab Spring protests there in 2011 which details 18 different torture techniques inflicted on detained protesters.

A British diplomat stationed in Bahrain at the time of a Prince Andrew visit later wrote that the thank-you letters he sent to his hosts after one visit to Bahrain – comparing the size of his plane to theirs – made for cringe-making reading.

 
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The alleged bid by the British government and army to close down investigations into torture and murder in Iraq and Afghanistan appears to be the latest aspect of a widespread desire in in the UK to forget all about these failed wars.

Joining the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 is commonly blamed on Tony Bair, but there is little interest in the desperate situation into which British troops were plunged post-invasion, first in southern Iraq and then, three years later, in Helmand province in Afghanistan.

The gravity of the miscalculations in each case is not in doubt. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, the British ambassador in Kabul at the time, wrote in his memoirs that the worst mistake made by the Foreign Office in the previous 30 years was the invasion of Iraq, and the second worst was “its enthusiastic endorsement of Britain’s half-baked effort to occupy Helmand in 2006”.

The allegation that war crimes were committed – to be claimed in a BBC Panaroma programme on Monday evening – is in keeping with Britain’s dismal record in these conflicts.

The ICC has said it is considering opening an investigation into the claims, based on leaked documents. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has said the allegations are unsubstantiated.

After the capture of Baghdad, the British army stayed in the south of Iraq, mostly in and around Basra, apparently under the impression that this would be quieter than the Sunni Arab provinces that had more strongly supported Saddam Hussein.

It swiftly became clear that, while the Shia population of the south were glad to be rid of Saddam, they were not about to accept a British occupation. An ominous sign of this came on 24 June 2003 when six British Royal Military Police were shot dead in a town called Majar al Kabir near the city of Amara.

They died because they were advising local police at the same moment as British paratroopers were carrying out an aggressive patrol in another part of the same town and had had an exchange of fire in which several locals had died. The RMPs were killed soon afterwards in a revenge attack.

The incident sums up the fatal contradiction facing the British expeditionary force in Iraq. Their numbers and dispositions were suitable for a country in which most of the population was friendly, but if the opposite were true, as it certainly was, then the soldiers were vastly outnumbered and in danger. British officers used to annoy their American counterparts by claiming prior expertise in this type of warfare, drawing on British experience in Malaya and Northern Ireland. A captain in military intelligence stationed for a year in Basra later said that “I kept trying to explain without success to my superiors that in Malaya and Northern Ireland we had local allies while in Basra we had none.”

The weakness of the British position was exposed in detail by the Chilcot Report in 2016, but its findings were masked by media obsession with finding some “smoking gun” that would prove the culpability of Tony Blair and by the shock result of the Brexit referendum that had taken place at the same time.

The report explains that by 2007 the British forces in Basra had run out of ideas and “it was humiliating that the UK reached a position in which an agreement with a militia group [the Mahdi Army], which had been actively targeting UK forces, was considered the best option available.”

According to Chilcot, the one consistent British strategy between 2003 and complete withdrawal in 2009 was “to reduce the level of deployed forces” and to do so without offending the US. The means of doing so was to redeploy the troops to Afghanistan, which was supposedly safer, but where they arrived just as the Taliban were restarting their guerrilla war and where 405 British troops were to be killed in the coming years.

Those who may have committed war crimes in these conflicts have been investigated, even if they were not prosecuted. It would be good if those responsible for these doomed military forays should also be held responsible for their actions.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Afghanistan, Britain, Iraq War, War Crimes 
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Mass expulsion or the physical extermination of an entire ethnic or religious community – ethnic cleansing – is usually treated by the media in one of two different ways: either it receives maximum publicity as a horror story about which the world should care and do something about, or it is ignored and never reaches the news agenda.

It appeared at first that the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds by Turkey after its invasion of northern Syria on 9 October would belong to the first category. There was angry condemnation of the forced displacement of 190,000 Kurds living close to the Syrian-Turkish border as Turkish soldiers, preceded by the Syrian National Army (SNA), in reality ill-disciplined anti-Kurdish Islamist militiamen, advanced into Kurdish-held areas. Videos showed fleeing Kurdish civilians being dragged from their cars and shot by the side of the road and reporters visiting hospitals saw children dying from the effects of white phosphorus that eats into the flesh and had allegedly been delivered in bombs or shells dropped or fired by the advancing Turkish forces.

People wonder why armies with complete military superiority should resort to such horrific weapons that are both illegal under international law or, at the very least, guarantee the user a lot of bad publicity. The explanation often is that “terror” weapons are deployed deliberately to terrify the civilian population into taking flight.

In the case of the Turkish invasion of Syria last month, the motive is not a matter of speculation: William V Roebuck, a US diplomat stationed in northeast Syria at the time, wrote an internal memo about what he was seeing for the State Department. The memo later leaked. It is one of the best-informed analyses of what happened and is titled: “Present at the Catastrophe: Standing By as Turks Cleanse Kurds in Northern Syria and De-Stabilise our D-Isis [sic] Platform in the Northeast.”

Roebuck, with access to US intelligence about Turkish intentions, has no doubt that Ankara would like to expel the 1.8 million Kurds living in their semi-independent state of Rojava. He says: “Turkey’s military operation in northern Syria, spearheaded by armed Islamist groups on its payroll, represents an … effort at ethnic cleansing, relying on widespread military conflict targeting part of the Kurdish heartland along the border and benefiting from several widely publicised, fear-inducing atrocities these forces committed.”

Later in the memo, Roebuck notes that the SNA irregulars had formerly been allied to al-Qaeda and Isis and that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had openly broadcast, in a speech at the UN, Turkey‘s intention to fill depopulated Kurdish areas with Syrian Arabs from other parts of Syria who are currently refugees in Turkey. Roebuck’s reference to the extreme jihadi links of the SNA is certainly correct since its members have videoed themselves denouncing Sunni Muslim Kurds, Yazidis and Christians as infidels, along with threats to kill members of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which lost 10,000 fighting Isis in a coalition with the US.

None of this made much difference to Erdogan’s visit to Washington and his meeting with President Trump on Wednesday. He even handed back a letter sent at the time the invasion in which Trump had famously told Erdogan: “Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!”

In practice, Erdogan’s military assault does not look so foolish as he balances between Trump and Vladimir Putin and rides a wave of hyper-nationalist enthusiasm at home. Complains about Turkish brutality and that of its proxies are common but focus on the overriding aim of the ethnic cleansing of the Kurds from Turkey’s border is becoming blurred and less spoken of, though it is still ongoing. Making life impossible for a civilian population can take other effective but less dramatic forms than the use of white phosphorus or roadside killings.

An example of this type of compelling pressure is the deprivation of drinking water for about 400,000 people, mostly Kurds, who rely on the Alouk water station near Ras al-Ayn, which was damaged in the fighting at the time of the invasion and is under the control of Turkish proxy forces that prevent it being repaired. The UN has been making desperate attempts to restore the water supply from Alouk, but has so far failed to do so. It points out that even before 9 October, 900,000 out of the 3 million living in northeastern Syria were in acute need and since then the situation has gotten worse.

Sceptics say that all the publicity given to the Turkish ethnic cleansing of Kurds in northern Syria since the invasion does not seem to be doing the victims much good. But the price that Turkey pays in international obloquy counterbalances, to a substantial degree, what it has gained through getting its way through close personal relations between Erdogan and Trump. Mass expulsions and killings by al-Qaeda proxies are more difficult to carry out when they have become a factor in the political battles between the White House on one side and a large part of congress and the US media and foreign policy establishment on the other.

We know that Turkey’s pressure on the Kurds to leave Rojava could be a lot worse because this has already happened in Afrin, the isolated Kurdish enclave north of Aleppo that Turkey invaded and occupied in early 2018. This is an example of the type of ethnic cleansing mentioned earlier that never gets reported. Much of the original 200,000-strong Kurdish population are now refugees and those that stayed are being harassed by the same Syrian Arab militia groups that formed the vanguard of the invasion force east of the Euphrates in October.

Information from Afrin is difficult to obtain, but what news does emerge tells of Kurds losing their houses, land and farm machinery and being at the mercy of predatory Syrian Arab militia proxies under Turkish control. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, one of the few organisations with informants in Afrin, reports that in one village, on the day that Erdogan and Trump were meeting in Washington, six local people were kidnapped and taken to a private prison by militiamen. Earlier this year, local media reported that a 10-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome was kidnapped together with his father and grandfather. All three were later killed when the remainder of the family was unable to pay a $10,000 ransom.

Such atrocities are ethnic cleansing in action and are what Trump greenlit when he opened the door to the Turkish invasion of Syria.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Kurds, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Syria, Turkey 
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Iraqi security and pro-Iranian paramilitary forces are shooting into crowds of protesters in a bid to drive them from the centre of Baghdad and end six weeks of demonstrations that have challenged the political system to an extent not seen since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Police retook three bridges across the Tigris River that lead to the fortified Green Zone on Saturday and are surrounding Tahrir Square, the central focus of the protests.

In al-Rasheed Street, close to the square, police set fire to tents set up by volunteer doctors to treat injured protesters.

At least six people were killed in the latest clashes, four of them by bullets and two by heavy duty tear gas grenades fired directly at the head or bodies of protesters, according to Amnesty International.

It says that 264 people taking part in demonstrations have died since 1 October, though the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights gives a higher figure of 301 dead and 15,000 injured.

The protests – and the merciless government attempt to stamp them out – are the biggest threat to the power of the Iraqi political establishment since Isis was advancing on Baghdad in 2014. In many respects, the danger to the status quo is greater now because Isis was an existential threat to the Shia majority who had no choice but to support their ruling elite, however predatory and incompetent they had proved in office.

The slaughter of so many demonstrators is similar to the tactics used by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013 to crush protests opposing his military coup that had overthrown the elected government.

By way of contrast, there was no such violence response to street demonstrations in Baghdad in 2016 , when protesters invaded the Green Zone, or in Basra in 2018, when the government and party offices were set ablaze.

Over the last month-and-a-half, however, there has been repeated use of snipers firing at random into demonstrations or targeting local protest leaders. The people doing the killing are parts of of the government’s highly fragmented security services and factions of the paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) known to be aligned with Iran.

It is the Iranian leadership, and more especially General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Revolutionary Guard’s al-Quds force and supremo of Iranian regional policy, who is orchestrating the campaign to smash the protests by sustained use of violence.

Precisely why General Qasem Soleimani decided to do so is a mystery, since the initial demonstration in Tahrir Square on 1 October was small.

The NGOs organising it had been failing for months to generate momentum.

It was the unprecedented “shoot-to-kill” policy of the authorities that turned these ill-attended rallies into a mass movement not far from a general uprising.

During the first days of the protests, protest organisers told The Independent they were at first baffled by what had happened, inclining at first to believe that the the first day’s violence, when at least 10 people were killed, might be a one-off overreaction that would not be repeated.

But the killing of protesters, counter-productive though it might be, went on.

On the day after the first shootings, bands of young protesters, looking very unintimidated, could be seen milling about the area. The authorities escalated the crisis further by declaring a 24-hour curfew and closing down the internet, a collective punishment of all 7 million people in Baghdad that could only spread support for the demonstrators.

At the same time, paramilitary groups, open in their loyalty to Iran, sent their black-clad militants into television stations publicising the protests to wreck their equipment and studios. They assaulted injured demonstrators in hospitals and abducted and threatened journalists, doctors and anybody else backing the demonstrations.

It is unlikely that this was a pre-arranged plot by the pro-Iranian paramilitaries acting on their own initiative.

Several of their leaders, whose groups were subsequently known to have supplied snipers to shoot at the street protests, were interviewed by The Independent a few days earlier.

Though they later declared that they had long detected a deep-laid conspiracy by the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE to use the protests to overthrow the political system in Iraq, they did not say so at the time. Qais al-Khazali, the leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a powerful paramilitary faction, said that “Iran wants a solution [in the US-Iran confrontation] but it cannot say this itself.”

He downplayed the idea that a US-Iran war was on the cards.

Abu Ala al-Walai, the head of Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, said in a separate interview that what most concerned him was an Israeli drone attack on a weapons depot at one of his bases on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Nevertheless, the speed and cohesion with which these pro-Iranian Shia paramilitary groups reacted – or overreacted – to the protests suggests a detailed contingency plan.

“The Iranians always have a plan,” notes one Iraqi commentator.

Nor did the paramilitaries act alone: no distinct boundary line divides the PMF from state security institutions. The PMF may number about 85,000, are paid their salaries by the Iraqi government and the chairman of the PMF is Faleh al-Fayyad, the government’s national security adviser.

The Interior Minister always belongs to the Iran-supported Badr Organisation and the ministry’s Emergency Response Division, for instance, is reported to have provided snipers to shoot protesters.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iran, Iraq 
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Critics lament the disintegration of the British political establishment under the impact of repeated shocks from the Brexit earthquake. Competent politicians and experienced civil servants head for the exit or are evicted to make way for more ideologically acceptable successors. Whatever one thought of the members of Theresa May’s final cabinet they were better than the clutch of opportunists and fanatics appointed by Boris Johnson.

The Brexit crisis has become an all-encompassing explanation of all that is wrong with Britain, with many idealising the sunlit uplands where we dwelt before the 2016 referendum. Retired civil service mandarins and politicians recall how everything used to run smoothly and sweetly before the Brexit barbarians stormed the gates and they lost their jobs.

It should be easy enough to check such rosy recollections because many of the retired politicians – if not the mandarins – use their retirement to write memoirs of great length and detail that need to appear swiftly if carefully hoarded nuggets of secret information are to appeal to the reader.

Publishers publicise such books by talking up those revelatory chunks where the author is rude about his successor or exposes the treachery and incompetence of old friends and allies. Editors and reviewers scan the index to see what old scores are being settled. Often ignored in all this, and dismissed as yesterday’s news, is fascinating information about what some powerful figure actually thought and did when he or she was in charge.

David Cameron’s autobiography For The Record is one such recently published volume that is deeply illuminating about how the author, as prime minister, responded to issues of war and peace. As one would expect from his public persona, he is fluent and plausible in describing his role in the wars in Libya and Syria sparked by the Arab Spring, but he is shallow and ill-informed about the forces at play. What comes across is that, like many more openly bellicose political leaders, the mild-mannered Cameron liked playing general and did so with enthusiastic but wrongheaded amateurism.

Cameron recalls with pride his role in the bombing of Libya in 2011, justifying it on the grounds that Muammar Gaddafi’s tanks and troops were advancing on Benghazi where they would massacre the population. He says that “on 20 March, American, British and French aircraft destroyed Gaddafi’s tanks, armoured carriers and rocket launchers, and his forces began to retreat. Benghazi was saved, and a Srebrenica-style slaughter averted. I’ve never known relief like it.”

There are a few things wrong with this as a description of what happened: a report by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee later revealed that the belief that Gaddafi would “massacre the civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence”. It pointed out that Gaddafi had retaken other towns from the rebels and not attacked the civilian population.

Nor was Benghazi saved: drone footage of the city taken recently show that the centre of the city has been destroyed, not by Gaddafi’s soldiers but in the fighting over many years between the militias that overthrew him. Had Cameron, Nicolas Sarkozy and Hillary Clinton not intervened militarily in the Libyan civil war then Benghazi might really have been saved, along with those who were killed and wounded in the long years of fighting that followed foreign intervention.

I was particularly interested in Cameron’s take on the Libyan conflict because, soon after the bombing started, I visited the frontline south of Benghazi where more journalists were visible than rebels. There was the occasional puff of smoke on the horizon when a shell exploded, but otherwise not much fighting going on.

This phoney war did not last long and Cameron explains why: “By May 2011 the war had sunk into stalemate, and needed a renewed focus. I agreed deals with France to commit Apache helicopters to help the rebels. I was on the phone to the leaders of the Gulf states to encourage their continued involvement which turned out to be crucial.”

In other words, Gaddafi was overthrown primarily by foreign powers and not by an indigenous rebellion. It requires considerable naivete on Cameron’s part to imagine that the Gulf states, the last absolute monarchies on earth, planned to replace Gaddafi with a secular democracy.

A dangerous blindness similarly pervades Cameron’s chapter on his frustrated attempts to take military action in Syria to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. He is disappointed that Barack Obama is not as gung-ho as himself and sometime feels that he picks up more information from the members of the Syrian diaspora he runs into than he does from his own diplomats.

He is angered by the action of the House of Commons and Obama in refusing to sanction air strikes in Syria after the use of chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus in August 2013. It becomes clear, however, that he never decided if this was to be a prolonged air campaign in support of the rebels until they were victorious or a slap on the wrist for Assad with a one-off cruise missile attack,which he would certainly have shrugged off, as he was to do when the US did launch such an attack in 2018.

It is worth studying what Cameron did, or thought he was doing in the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, because war reveals a political leader’s level of judgement as does nothing else. There has been much criticism of Cameron’s decision to first hold, and then lose, the referendum on membership of the European Union, but his second-rate attributes as a leader were already evident in his decisions about these two wars.

These failings are not confined to Cameron, but to what used to be called the British ruling class as a whole: its members have a a certain provinciality and sense of superiority that makes it difficult for them to play a weak hand well when negotiating with the EU. Such assumptions blend with inner self-doubt which sees Cameron continually trotting off to see Obama or Vladimir Putin, though this never seems to get him very far.

It is worth reading Cameron’s book to understand his failings since most of the party leaders in the upcoming general election are even worse.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, David Cameron, Libya 
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Britain is becoming more and more like Northern Ireland. This should be a comfort to Arlene Foster and the DUP as they rue their betrayal by Boris Johnson over the Irish border.

Northern Irish politics have always been dominated by the competing agendas of the Catholic/Irish nationalists and the Protestant/Unionist communities. In practice, both the DUP and Sinn Fein are nationalist parties, though the former does not see its Union Jack-waving version of British identity as being “nationalist”.

But there are lessons to be learned from Northern Ireland as a place where super-heated nationalism is the order of the day. In the coming general election, for the first time in British history, it is nationalist parties that stand a good chance of making a clean sweep in the UK as a whole. The Conservative Party under Boris Johnson has turned into an English nationalist party whose main policy is seeking self-determination through leaving the EU. The SNP are likely to win almost all the parliamentary seats in Scotland. In Wales, 41 per cent of the electorate say they would opt for Welsh independence within the EU.

Not that the pursuit of self-determination is in any way wrong: it is a natural human instinct to seek control for good or ill of one’s own future. The Remainers have done themselves a lot of self-harm by seeing English nationalism as somehow illegitimate because is tainted by racism and imperialism and therefore less justifiable than Kurdish or Vietnamese nationalism. Liberals and left-wingers often see English nationalism as a diversion from real economic and social ills, propelled by nostalgia for the world of Kipling. This may or may not be so, but the history of nationalist movements shows that they are ignored at one’s peril and it is never enough to prove the falsity of nationalist promises of good things to come just over the horizon.

Remainers frequently sound baffled at the failure of intellectually convincing studies showing that Britain will be economically worse off outside the EU to have any impact on Leave supporters. This may be because the strongest Leave support is in places, from the de-industrialised Welsh Valleys to decayed English coastal towns, where people never saw EU membership doing them much good.

Remainers would have been less surprised if they had considered that nationalist movements have a track record of promising that everybody’s troubles will be resolved once national independence has been won. People have fought and died heroically for these dreams from Algeria to Zimbabwe and Baghdad to Manila, only to find that they have enabled a corrupt elite to clamber into power and exploit it to enrich themselves.

A reason this grim lesson is never learned is that nationalist leaders invariably claim that their nation is, or ought to be, different from others. Failure and betrayal in other less blessed countries is of no interest or relevance. Belief in national exceptionalism is particularly strong in England because of its largely successful history over the last two centuries: no world wars lost, no foreign occupations, no civil wars or revolutions. For many in England, particularly among the older and less educated generations, this is the natural order of things.

Failure to deliver on their promises seldom capsizes nationalist leaders because they double down on putting the blame on minorities, the media and foreign states. This was true of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe in the past and is true of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey today. When the supposed threat to the national community fails to silence critics, they can be jailed or their media outlets taken over.

Brexit supporters are contemptuous of the idea that any of these grim examples may apply to them or their country since part of their mantra is that Britain is different, meaning superior, to other countries. But, though authoritarian populist nationalism comes in different flavours, the ways it seeks and exercises power, whether it is in the US, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, India or Brazil, has strong parallels. A paradox of the Brexit project, is that in wanting to make the British more British it has made them less so by developing an English nationalism similar to stereotypes in other countries.

Remainers as well as Leavers often have an ingrained sense that such nationalist excesses “can’t happen here”. But in Northern Ireland, a place that used to be called “John Bull’s political slum”, such things have already happened over the last 10 years. Government may have been dysfunctional and self-serving but the DUP exploited Protestant/Unionist communal solidarity to excuse its failures.

Just how this happened is explained in fascinating detail in Sam McBride’s recently published Burned: The Inside Story of the ‘Cash-for-Ash’ Scandal and Northern Ireland’s Secretive New Elite. Keep in mind that the DUP, the main political vehicle of this elite, was the party that kept the Conservatives in power after 2017 and the DUP’s own community still votes for it despite its calamitous record.

The scandal that was to destroy the power-sharing government at Stormont began with what was sold as a green energy Renewal Heat Initiative (RHI). It was introduced in 2012 by the current DUP leader Arlene Foster, then Northern Ireland’s enterprise minister. The benign intention was for businesses to switch from old-fashioned oil and gas heaters to boilers using recycled, environmentally friendly wood pellets. But the Stormont version of the legislation passed by Westminster mysteriously missed out the section on cost controls. As a result, Northern Ireland’s government was paying £1.60 for every £1 of fuel burned by those taking part in the scheme which may eventually cost £1.2bn.

Anybody who bought a boiler could automatically make money. Hotels opened all their windows and turned up their heating full blast to produce “the ash for cash”. Farmers heated empty barns and cowsheds and made more money out of the scheme than they could growing grain or raising life stock.

The abuse of the scheme was soon detected but it was four years before it was stopped. By then Arlene Foster had become first minister of Northern Ireland, refusing to step aside during investigations, leading Sinn Fein to withdraw from the power-sharing government that collapsed in 2017.

Events in Northern Ireland are usually discounted in the rest of the UK as being toxic but atypical. The DUP’s hyper-British nationalism used to seem a bizarre throwback to pre-1914 Britain that could be safely ignored, but over the last two years it was in and out of Downing Street and won praise from the ERG for being true to the old British values. Populist nationalism in the past has been typified by corrupt elites using national or communal self-interest to excuse their looting expeditions. As Britain enters an era of resurgent nationalism, Northern Ireland is an ominous pointer to what is to come.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Boris Johnson, Brexit, Britain 
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At the height of the al-Qaeda-led insurgency in Iraq in 2006-07, US commanders, whose troops were suffering serious casualties from roadside bombs, developed a strategy. They sought to identify, kill or capture the leaders of the cells planting the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) in the belief that this would cripple the bombing campaign.

Many such high-value targets were tracked down and eliminated, but the whole strategy turned out to be misconceived and counterproductive. A study of 200 cases of cell leaders being killed or arrested in 2007 showed that in the month following the elimination of the individual targeted, the number of IED attacks in the area where his cell operated actually increased by between 20 and 40 per cent.

This was happening because al-Qaeda had assumed that its local military leaders would have a low survival rate and always had a replacement ready to take over within 24 hours of his demise. These new commanders were eager to show their military prowess by making more attacks, while their predecessor had often suffered from battle fatigue or was short on new ideas about how to carry the fight to the enemy. (Full disclosure: the information about the counterproductive US high value target strategy in Iraq comes from my brother Andrew Cockburn’s book Kill Chain: Drones and the Rise of High-Tech Assassins.)

It is worth keeping this story in mind when considering the likely consequences of the killing of the overall Isis leader, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, in northwest Syria on 27 October. Commentators and analysts have reacted cautiously to his death, saying that it is a serious symbolic blow to Isis but not a fatal one and that the movement is not going to go out of business any time soon.

But there is another less reassuring way of looking at the killing of Baghdadi. It may do more harm than good because he was a demonstrably disastrous leader from the point of view of his own movement. By effectively declaring war on all the world he led it to certain defeat and his elimination may be just what Isis needs to rejuvenate itself. As with those al-Qaeda bomb makers in Iraq a dozen years ago, a new Isis leader may be more dangerous because he will avoid Baghdadi’s gargantuan mistakes, relaunching the movement in a different guise and with different ways of operating.

Isis, with Baghdadi as its leader, had certain strengths: religious fanaticism wedded to military expertise, making it a formidable fighting force. It proved powerfully attractive to the persecuted Sunni Arab populations of Iraq and Syria living under challenging governments that they hated.

But under Baghdadi those same Sunni Arabs found that they were living under a nightmarish tyranny where the pettiest religious or social transgression was punished by beatings and executions. It was a state ruled by fear: I was in the former de facto Isis capital of Raqqa last year where I met Abdel Salaam, a survivor of the three long years of Isis rule. “Daesh [Isis] is in our hearts and minds,” he said. “Five-year-old children have seen women stoned to death and heads chopped off and put on spikes in the city centre.” I found the spiked railings he spoke of and they were bent forward by the weight of decapitated heads.

This is not an experience that the Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria want to repeat. Moreover, for all its brutality discipline, the Islamic State was unable to defend its inhabitants against their enemies or prevent the ruin of their cities and towns.

But Isis could have taken a different course – and almost did so – when its Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra took a less bloodthirsty and more flexible approach in expanding its rule between 2011 and 2013. Baghdadi promptly tried to take it over, split the movement, and ensured that the territory he controlled was true to his brutal theological vision of an Islamic state.

With Baghdadi at its head, Isis was never going to rise again, but with him out of the way it may stand a better chance of doing so in Syria and Iraq. In both countries some of the ingredients that led to the astonishing resurgence of Isis in 2011-14 are beginning to recur: the Iraqi government is grappling with protests close to a popular uprising, successful army commanders are being fired, and the Sunni Arabs are marginalised and impoverished. In northeast Syria, the successful Kurdish-US alliance against Isis is broken while Turkish and Syrian government forces are moving into the region. It is this sort of chaos in which a remodelled Isis might take root and flourish.

The death of Baghdadi may have more impact on the Isis franchises in other parts of the world where his prestige as the caliph was often greater than in the territories he ruled. Religious movements often make it easier to revere a dead martyr than a demonstrably fallible live one.

Political and military leaders around the world pretend that the decapitation of some hostile organisation or movement will solve all problems. But how much did the 1993 killing of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian cocaine king, really change anything in the cocaine business? Donald Trump’s self-congratulatory gloating over the death of Baghdadi may turn out to be equally misplaced.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Iraq, ISIS, Syria 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.

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