Paper Tigers

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Paper Tigers:

Essays on War

I must thank Christopher Montgomery of The Critic, Iman Zayat of The Arab Weekly, John Ashmore of CapX, Karim Traboulsi of The New Arab, Sara Brzuszkiewicz of European Eye on Radicalisation and Yassin Swehat of al-Jumhuriya for permission to reproduce in this collection writing which originally appeared in their publications. And for commissioning everything the first time round. Sometimes I have edited it a little, sometimes rather a lot. Everything else is mine.

James Snell


December 2021


Forgive the broad definition of ‘war’ that this collection assumes. But in the zero-sum games in finance and politics, everyone truly fighting for status and survival believes that it’s a war – whatever others say. This collection therefore ranges quite broadly. It’s a rogues’ gallery.

Why Nazis Love Bashar al-Assad

This week’s march, entitled ‘Unite the Right’, by a collection of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other right-wing extremists in Charlottesville, Virginia, has thrown the United States into turmoil.

One counter-marcher lies dead, and many more have been injured, rammed by a suspected terrorist in a vehicle. And the country as a whole remains shocked and raw.

The president, Donald Trump, has made several rounds of remarks on the subject, sometimes appearing to equivocate, other times seeming to condemn the marchers and the violence their ideological ally unleashed.

Many have said that this does not amount to enough, and they would be right. But the story then becomes one about Trump’s reticence or bluster, and the nature of the march itself recedes into the background.

This will not do.

Amid all this chaos, and the tumult in America more generally, some aspects of this march could be lost and forgotten. Etymological concerns abound. It concerns the ‘alt-right’, as they style themselves. Do we call them fascists?

They were certainly behaving like fascists.

Another thing these marchers seemed to have in common with Nazis was something that might seem initially incongruous: Love for the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

When used in relation with such people, ‘love’ might seem a strong word, but the sentiment was there and it was real. On film, marchers wearing Assad-themed t-shirts affirmed that Syria’s tyrant ‘did nothing wrong’ in between chants of ‘blood and soil’.

Referring to a crude, vicious means by which the Syrian air force kills civilians, the same people were positively gleeful. ‘Barrel bombs, hell yeah!’ one said, promising to use the same weapons on ‘commies’.

James Fields, the man who drove his car into a mass of people and vehicles protesting against the march, had, as Joyce Karam notes, posted a picture of Assad in uniform bearing the legend ‘undefeated’ on his Facebook page.

This love fits a type. American Nazis, like their European and Middle Eastern counterparts, all seem to love Assad.

Britain’s far-right British National Party loves Assad. Its on-again, off-again leader, Nick Griffin, has made visits to Damascus to pay tribute. While there, he has given glowing interviews to the Russian state media channel, RT, describing Assad’s cause as a just one.

Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn also loves Assad. Its leaders have repeatedly pledged solidarity with his violent crackdown. There was even the suggestion, reported on three years ago, that Golden Dawn-linked mercenaries may be fighting for the Assad regime. Even though these rumours were likely inflated, their appearance at all, in neo-Nazi newspapers, shows apparent willingness to fight and die for Syria’s brutal dictator.

Lebanon’s Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which marches under a modified swastika, is so pro-Assad that it has been fighting on his side, and even serving as a conduit for pro-Assad speakers from outside Syria to enter the country.

In America things are clearer cut. David Duke, a white supremacist and former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, has been a fan of the Assad regime for years. This affection, which is possibly down to Syria’s long-term opposition to Israel, has lasted to this day. Duke tweets gushingly that Assad is a ‘modern day hero standing up to demonic forces seeking to destroy his people and nation’.

This language of Duke’s – ‘demonic forces’ in particular – is noteworthy. It gets to the heart of things.

Nazis like Assad because he has killed, and is killing, a lot of Muslims. This is essential to their view of the world. Anyone who sets out to murder Muslims and Arabs can be considered a friend. In this sense the far-right love affair with Assad can be considered almost tactical, a means to an end.

But there is more to it than that. The far-right seems to genuinely believe part of Assad’s rhetoric. Its proponents parrot Assad’s line that he is at the head of a force which is protecting Syria and therefore Europe from ‘Sunni barbarism’.

In this fanciful telling, Assad is manning the gates of civilisation, holding out against unspecified barbarians.

How neatly this slots into the far-right worldview. Sunni Muslims are, in Duke’s mind, ‘demonic forces’. That he conflates Syrians protesting for freedom and an end to dictatorship with jihadists is almost incidental. The far-right and Assad share hatreds.

But more than that, there are also links between Ba’athism and historical fascism. Early Baath leaders sought to emulate the tactics and practices of European fascists. They attempted to modify its doctrines to suit Arab chauvinism, but otherwise the fascist component of Baath ideology is clear to see.

The centrality of the all-powerful leader; loud talk of racial purity and the superiority of a chosen race, in this case Arabs; hatred of the Jews – all these mark out Baathism’s origins and the sources of its early inspiration.

Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s Ba’athist dictator, took signal lessons from many twentieth century tyrants, but his borrowings from the catalogue of fascist practices are most obvious of all.

The Syrian Ba’ath regime provided material help and shelter to Nazis fleeing Europe. One of them, Alois Brunner, most likely died in Damascus after being harboured by the Baath regime for many years. He was never extradited and was in fact generously rewarded by Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, for passing on Nazi methods of torture.

Those methods have, it can be assumed, found extensive employment under the Assads.

Nazis across the world love Assad partly because it is transgressive to do so. Their governments, or most of them, acknowledge Assad’s crimes and so to downplay them or embrace them seems an exciting, daring act.

More than this, however, Assad’s message of him holding back hordes of enemies and killing undesirables falls on receptive ears. Nazis find this message attractive, and admire him because, in both rhetoric and method, he is more than a little like them.

The New Arab, August 17, 2017

It Couldn’t Happen Here

Fears of a European Bannonism

Steve Bannon is not as clever as he thinks, but he is good at attracting attention. At Breitbart News, Bannon fashioned effective propaganda, becoming an essential aspect of the right-wing media system – in America and, latterly, across the world.

Breitbart attracted politicians, such as Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, and in turn it – in its own way – sought to aid them.

When Bannon began to work for Donald Trump, and later, when he prowled the corridors of the White House, his star seemed ascendant. Overexcited profiles declared him a sinister intellectual and grey cardinal. Magazine features analysed his reading habits and unlettered writerly output. The journalist Joshua Green even suggested that Bannon’s was the hidden hand propelling Trump to victory, and that the agreement between the two on which buttons to push represented a ‘devil’s bargain’.

Not long after Green’s book appeared, Bannon left the White House in disgrace. He appeared – a paranoid obsessive – in Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff’s gossipy account of the Trump administration, for which Bannon seemed to be the primary source. Trump, meanwhile, took to calling Bannon ‘Sloppy Steve’, and Bannon left Breitbart, the former seat of his power and influence. That put paid to so much of the frantic commentary.

But Bannon, even without status or steady work, is good at one thing: causing a scene. And a new scene of his creation played out this week, when Bannon, after online near-hysteria, was disinvited from an event hosted by the New Yorker.

The scandal helps Bannon because, once again, it gives him coverage. It allows the old myths of his brilliance to make unwelcome reappearance.

It makes him seem dangerous, something to be contained, rather than a political actor like any other, who could, with careful interviewing, be tripped up by his own words.

The campaign to rescind Bannon’s invitation was prompted by a fear of the disembodied fascism some see stalking the United States, of which Bannon is the representative on Earth. In the background is the more tangible idea that Bannon is in the process of creating a far-right international.

Pieces have consistently appeared of late to suggest that Bannon is targeting Europe. He has certainly made Hungary and its illiberal leader Viktor Orban his allies. There is talk of a movement (cunningly called ‘The Movement’) sweeping the European parliament elections. This talk seems overheated.

Britain is on Bannon’s mind. He claimed Brexit as a precursor to Trump and has spent much time in his country of late, giving interviews in which he attempted to appear both Svengali and Cassandra.

That Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg reportedly met Bannon was greeted with alarm, followed as it was by a column of Johnson’s in which he was perceived to have made dog-whistle criticisms of Islam – and particularly Muslim women – by disparaging the appearance of those who wore niqabs.

But this is a false diagnosis. Bannon has not converted British politicians, and Bannonism will not succeed here.

Bannonism is rigid and ideological. It is almost apocalyptic. Trump’s chaotic style contained aspects of its messaging, but in office, Trump lacked the focus and belief to translate it into policy.

Johnson’s niqab column, despite the row it stoked, shows he can be no Bannonite.

A true radical controversialist would have believed Bannon’s message that being called racist was a badge of pride. Such a person would have revelled in the controversy and stoked it further, not chosen to write comically about wildlife, as Johnson did with his next column – which he dedicated to otters.

Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, is a man whose views are rigid enough to sustain ideology, but whose ideology is not even slightly Bannonist. He has no time for the apocalyptic notes Bannonism sounds when in full flow.

Any hope political also-rans such as Arron Banks and Nigel Farage have of success in mainstream politics in the Bannonist mould is also limited; for them to become anything more than end of the pier entertainers and disk jockeys would take more than the intervention of a fervent foreigner with a mixed record of success.

Europe is another question, to an extent. The Hungarian example would perhaps be pertinent had Orban’s electoral coalition and tactics not predated the 2016 wave – which Bannon rode and glories in – by decades. Perhaps Sweden’s coming elections will give pause for thought. Otherwise, one can only conclude that fears of far-right ascendancy in Europe are, for a while at least, overdone.

CapX, September 7, 2018

Officially Incompetent

Western politicians failed in their response to the Arab Spring. National leaders saw and saluted the emergence of pro-democracy protests in 2011, but they did little more. When they acted, as in Libya, Western leaders did too little and thought not at all about the future; when they did not act, in Syria most notably, they ushered in a state of affairs where war crimes go unpunished, and dictators engaged in mass murder need fear no redress.

There are reasons for all this. Most politicians are not, by nature, internationalists. For them, the outside world matters only insofar as it can be used politically – or, indeed, to the extent that global problems can become difficult at home.

This may be understandable and obvious to some, if morally difficult to accept. But there are others involved in the formation of foreign policy who are not accountable to an electorate. Those in officialdom – the career civil servants staffing the bureaucracies of foreign ministries, embassies, quangos, and agencies – might be expected to act differently.

These officials may, one might hope, be able to take a longer-term view. They can detach themselves from domestic political concerns. But officialdom has other flaws. In Western countries, officials have been unable and ultimately unwilling to appreciate democratic movements such as the Arab Spring.

People in government service can think they’ve seen it all. They see political careers flower and wither; they may have served an endless cavalcade of ministers.

Those working in foreign policy can succumb to caricatures of regions and nations. They fall victim to lazy institutional thinking. Officials are also, as a class, jaded and cynical people. They have seen too much of the world to have great cause for optimism. They dismiss people from foreign places with big ideas. They downplay their own governments’ abilities to act.

Ambassador Frederic Hof, a special adviser on Syria at the State Department until his resignation in 2012, diagnoses an institutional malaise. Hof, writing in the third person, states that he left government service because of his ‘inability to convince his superiors that objectives and strategy mattered.’ His proposed strategy was empowering the armed opposition to create a Syrian solution to the problem of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS).

The same institutional mentality met the Syrian revolution when it first began, and has proven an obstacle ever since. When the Arab Spring happened, there were people in foreign offices around the West who did not see in it the possibility of a democratic awakening, but rather a problem to be mitigated.

In Syria this official cynicism has, in tandem with the choices of elected leaders, systematically starved the opposition of support and resources. Some British officials, for example, never quite believed that Syrians wanted democratic self-government or could maintain it. They dismissed as so much talk any calls by Arabs for greater freedoms.

Now, as the revolution reels in the light of half a decade’s indifference from the wider world, they see no reason to revise that view.

This is a bleak view of human nature. But more than this, some in officialdom also habitually talk down the possibility that the nations they work for can do anything to help.

Hof’s former colleagues, having disparaged America’s ability to act in Syria from the beginning, assumed that Russia would fail in its intervention in the country from 2015. But this intervention did not become the quagmire which was forecast. In predicting that it would, US officials unconsciously allowed another state to seize the initiative and transform the situation within Syria.

Other former foreign service types assist dictatorships more actively. Peter Ford, a former British ambassador to Syria, now lobbies for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, having taken a position as director of the British Syrian Society, an advocacy organisation founded by the dictator’s father-in-law, Fawwaz al-Akhras.

Craig Murray, another former British ambassador, is a man whose disillusionment with the government has led him to embrace, among other undesirables, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. But he shares some attitudes with his former colleagues. Murray publicly questioned the rationale of the Assad regime’s using Sarin to attack Khan Shaykhun in April. This is a way of soft-pedalling war crimes by denying the logic behind them. It is a diversionary tactic which some British Ministry of Defence officials privately echo.

Murray and Ford are disdained by their former diplomatic colleagues. But they are still, for better or worse, products of institutional cultures which also serve to shape so many currently in government service.

Talk has now turned to reconstructing Syria, and the official consensus appears to favour Assad remaining in power. Western governments are withdrawing from their bases on Syrian soil and ceasing programs to arm rebels.

It has become a self-fulfilling situation. Syria’s rebels, left under-equipped in the face of the militaries of three states – Assad’s, Russia’s, and Iran’s – are deemed unworthy of support for not securing quick victories. Friends have noted a strain of thought in the British Foreign Office which feels vindicated by this failure, an event its officials have helped to create.

This is aided by a monomaniacal focus on defeating ISIS. It is seen in both politicians and functionaries, such as Brett McGurk, the US envoy tasked with working with the global coalition against the terror group. That work includes some impolitic alliances. McGurk and others, such as General Raymond Thomas of US Special Operations Command, embraced without question the rapidly-generated ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) label which was adopted, in a lightning-fast rebranding, by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and their Arab proxies.

The priority – perhaps even the sole consideration – in doing this was to reach Raqqa, ISIS’ Syrian capital, as fast as possible. Little thought was given to the future of that city after ISIS, just as little thought has been given, in many Western capitals, to the future of Syria at all.

None of this is to say that officials are necessarily immoral or even callous. But officialdom has grown indifferent to the rhetoric of democracy and freedom, and to its reality. Functionaries are almost unable, not to mention unwilling, to see the point in resistance to dictatorial regimes, no matter how oppressive. And this has allowed Western politicians to feel justified in their failure to seize the greatest democratic moment of this century.

Al-Jumhuriya, October 5, 2017

Federal Misgovernment

Syria’s civil conflict is not over, or even nearly over, but some of its participants are keen that this perception travels. They hope it becomes commonly-held. The regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian allies are busy pretending the war is winding down and that they have won. Assad himself met the Russian president Vladimir Putin in Sochi last month in the simulation of a victory lap.

This notion combines with the collapse of the Islamic State (ISIS), whose last urban strongholds are being recaptured across Iraq and Syria. In Syria, much of this recapturing is being done by the United States’ designated proxy: the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an umbrella organization steered by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

As the campaign against ISIS grows more successful, talk of its being wound down is beginning to surface. James Mattis, the American defence secretary, recently signalled an accordant change in the United States’ relationship with its proxy, suggesting that the Americans would cease arming the SDF and even attempt to recover heavy weapons and vehicles from its fighters.

This would place limits on the ambitions of the YPG. But it retains its political freedom of movement within Syria. Its leaders work within an interesting dynamic vis-à-vis the Assad regime.

The regime’s pretence of being close to victory leads to the transmitting of some mixed messages. It gestures aggressively across the Euphrates, suggesting, in line with Assad’s vain boasting, that its own and allied forces may yet take the whole country by force. The YPG, and, by extension, the SDF must contend with this posturing.

At the same time, however, SDF figures feel it necessary also to prepare to be part of what its leaders assume will be an Assad-led Syria in the future. Some of them have begun to make outlandish predictions of how this eventuality may be orchestrated.

Their predictions present the possibility of YPG and SDF forces reflagging as ‘Northern Syria Protection Units’ and effectively taking up places in the service of an Assad-dominated, federal Syria.

Last month, Riad Darar of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the SDF, told Rudaw TV that ‘if Syria was united, we believe there would be no need to have a separate force because they would join the Syrian Army’. This suggestion was quickly picked up by foreign analysts such as the American academic Joshua Landis, and featured in pro-regime and Russian outlets, for example Al-Masdar News.

Darar later recanted some of the implications of his first statements, but the bare point remains. The SDF and its leaders are actively considering accommodation with the regime, which bears ultimate responsibility for the shape and brutality of Syria’s civil war. This result may seem surprising, even counterintuitive at present, as the debate is confused and the waters muddied by pro-Assad forecasts. But it is entirely unsurprising.

Co-operation between Assad and Syria’s Kurdish forces is not new. The regime and YPG have governed al-Hasakah in tandem for years. Admittedly, this arrangement is fractious, but it came about and continues by the deliberate choice of both participants. There is also the example of Manbij, which, after its liberation from ISIS by the SDF, has suffered a de facto return to regime rule. The Manbij Military Council (MMC), a constituent part of the SDF, apparently agreed this arrangement with the regime and its Russian backers to frustrate Turkish-supported Syrian rebel forces.

Contemporary events like this play into the hands of those promoting an Assad­-YPG deal more broadly. There are also historical factors at work. In Kurdish areas before the revolution, there was a willingness, from both Kurdish political parties and their militias, to acquiesce to regime demands. This took place despite official discrimination against Kurdish culture and restrictions placed by Assad père et fils on teaching the Kurdish language. It took place in spite of the repeated persecution of Kurdish pro-democracy campaigners. Despite the dictators being no friends of the Kurds, Kurdish leaders saw a rationale in working with them, and took political steps to make it happen.

The same motivations are present among Kurdish leaders, civil and military, today. They know that the support of the Americans, especially under an unsentimental and erratic president in Donald Trump, is not likely to be extended indefinitely. The Turkish state is understandably perturbed at the YPG, an effective branch of Turkey’s internal enemy, the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), carving out a large part of northern Syria for its own. It will exert increasing pressure on the Americans, a NATO ally. Turkish intervention is, in part, behind Mattis’ promise to cease arming the YPG.

Many behind the SDF think it is time to start planning for the collapse of the global coalition ranged against ISIS. Accommodation with Assad is a possible route to follow in the aftermath of such an event. And Kurdish leaders place the regime’s inconsistent threats to cross the Euphrates in context. Part of this is caused by a correct diagnosis of regime weakness; Kurdish leaders doubt Assad will ever be powerful enough to threaten them. But it would be unwise of them to count on it.

If it could, the regime would subjugate all of Syria beneath fresh tyranny. It would punish all who dissented; it would subject minorities to new persecution.

For the YPG to allow the regime to imagine a federated Syria in which both would operate, and to extend its influence east of the Euphrates, would be immoral and likely counterproductive. But it also makes Syrian Kurds vulnerable.

It makes them vulnerable to living in a state once more dominated by a murderous dictator reliant on sectarian violence and beholden to ruthless foreign backers. It makes them vulnerable to the suppression of their culture, language, and political freedoms. And it makes them vulnerable to the accusation of underwriting the above—by participating in its unhappy formation, and by protecting this new arrangement with their own forces, men and women who could end up the bearers of new flags and new loyalties.

Al-Jumhuriya, December 7, 2017

Rhetorical Questions

Whatever else he is, Command Sergeant Major John Wayne Troxell, the senior enlisted adviser to General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff, is at the very least appropriately named. The élan with which he recently wrote about the American campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) would be worthy of the protagonist of any Hollywood Western.

In a post on Facebook earlier this month, Troxell wrote that ‘ISIS needs to understand that the Joint Force is on orders to annihilate them’.

Troxell continued: ‘They have two options should they decide to come up against the United States, our allies and partners: surrender or die!’ He notified ISIS fighters that, if they chose not to surrender to the Global Coalition, they would be killed with ‘extreme prejudice’. And the extremity of that prejudice would be manifested ‘through security force assistance, by dropping bombs on them, shooting them in the face, or beating them to death with our entrenching tools’.

That last suggestion took hold of a few imaginations. To aid others, Troxell later posted a line drawing which serves as a guide, explaining exactly how to dispatch an aggressor with a modified shovel. He insisted that the entrenching tool is a ‘versatile and formidable weapon’.

It is easy to simply scoff at this language, or indeed to feign horror and outrage that military men speak in this way. But there is something to be learnt by resisting the temptation.  This particular rhetorical exercise is part of a broader American strategy within the global campaign against ISIS, for better, or, as the case may be, worse.

In discussing ISIS casualties, American policymakers and diplomats can be casually brutal. Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to that coalition, frequently invokes ISIS fighters not only killed, but rotting in the streets. During the denouement of the Raqqa campaign, McGurk tweeted with satisfaction that the bodies of ISIS fighters were ‘still visible along some roadsides’.

This rhetoric may seem the result of extreme confidence and security – the hardness of winning a necessary fight. But there is more to it than that.

These rhetorical excesses, which are greater in intensity than American officials have tended to offer in other recent conflicts, are noteworthy. They’re noteworthy because the Americans feel the need to assert that they are fighting ISIS and doing so with real violence. This language not only documents a campaign in progress, but serves to emphasize what Americans hope onlookers will take to be its brutal effectiveness.

If this were simply being done, and ISIS fighters were being killed en masse by American soldiers on the ground, it would not need to be said so loudly. But there lies the problem, and it relates to what came at the beginning of Troxell’s list.

Sure, the Americans are ‘dropping bombs’ on ISIS; they are doing so constantly and with success. Tens of thousands of American bombs have been dropped each year of the campaign; they have likely accounted for thousands of ISIS casualties. But the role which the United States’ military is playing in the present drama is, essentially, that of a supporting character. The most powerful nation on earth participates in ‘security force assistance’ more than anything else.

Proxy forces do the heavy lifting. In Syria, this part is taken by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). In Iraq, the peshmerga of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) were given extensive American support in pushing ISIS out of the north of the country. The Iraqi state was assisted in retaking major urban centres, including fighting hard for the city of Mosul, ISIS’ Iraqi capital. And the Americans must also accommodate with the militias operating within Iraq, many of them openly sectarian and backed by Iran, collected under the Hashd al-Shaabi umbrella, also known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF). These alliances are fragile and often uncomfortable.

Instead of documenting a conflict in which American soldiers are directly participant, government and military men talk about the actions others performed with American support. Troxell’s comments unintentionally highlight that the United States is leaning on local actors to fight the Islamic State. Because so much of the fighting has been delegated to partner forces and proxies, the Americans almost need to demonstrate that they are involved, and to do so with visceral language.

This tic can appear in odd ways. When the United States attacks an enemy in Syria which is not ISIS, its representatives do not use language approaching Troxell’s. This happened when US forces struck an attacking column of jihadists aligned with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, which looked likely to threaten an American base near al-Tanf that was also occupied by CIA-vetted rebels. After this strike, a spokesman said, ‘now that they’ve backed off, we’re not going after them’. Compare this to the above.

Because the United States is providing the airpower and the rhetoric, it feels chained to the fight against ISIS. This manifests itself in a monomaniacal focus on the anti-ISIS campaign, minimising all other conflict and disharmony. When the Iraqi state seized territory from the autonomous KRG after the latter held a referendum on independence, the United States appealed for calm and peace not with the authority of the world’s sole superpower, but with a rather sullen suggestion that this internecine conflict put the fight against ISIS in jeopardy.

Rhetoric of this kind is also part of a more general American problem. Its political leaders have no real enthusiasm for instituting local governance in the areas ISIS held. Their focus is solely given to defeating the caliphate. This perhaps explains McGurk’s lingering on the deaths of enemy fighters. For the Americans, tabulating ISIS casualty counts takes precedence over a truly sustainable strategy, which would engender and require an entirely different use of rhetoric.

Troxell’s language is not necessarily shocking and ought not to be seized upon as an indication of American barbarism. But it does point to a surprising irony of the American position in the present war: it is a participant, but at a distance; bearing the costs financially and deploying extensive airpower, but not shouldering burdens on the ground in significant numbers. This is so evident that the Americans have to compensate rhetorically, assuring onlookers of the prejudice with which US forces will ‘terminate’ ISIS targets. This linguistic directness stands in direct contrast to the confused state of American policy in Syria and Iraq. And both the rhetoric and the confusion look set to persist.

Al-Jumhuriya, January 23, 2018

Failing to Respond

Amid all that has occurred since, it is easy to forget what happened in Syria at the start of this month. First, as February began, the regime of Bashar al-Assad was credibly accused of several chemical weapons attacks on civilian areas, during routine airstrikes against non-military targets. And second, days later, the American-led coalition killed over 100 pro-regime fighters who had attacked a detachment of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the US troops escorting them east of the Euphrates.

The former was different even from the regime’s usual violence. Reports of chemical weapons use allege that chlorine gas had been deployed in Douma, in the besieged Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, and in Saraqeb, a town in Idlib. Together, these and other incidents in which the regime is alleged to have used chemical weapons signal something significant. They indicate that Assad and his allies either feel sincerely immune from international sanction or wish to test that proposition to destruction.

Both cases represent a direct challenge to the international community.

The latter was no fleeting engagement. Fighting between the American-supported SDF and pro-regime forces apparently lasted around three hours, involving extensive American air support and the use of artillery. Among the dead, it was reported, were Russian contractors, freelancing in Syria as part of the ‘Wagner’ mercenary force.

This was an extended battle against multiple international rivals, in which over a hundred were killed. A serious engagement to counter unjustified aggression, following on from brutal regime attacks on civilians and possible chemical war crimes.

The United States may have been justified in feeling that this timing was fortuitous. American envoys could write the latter off as a consequence of the former. The Assad regime could be both humiliated and warned. And further action would not be needed, negated by retroactive rhetoric.

But this did not occur. Instead, the Americans remained rigid. Their forces had fought off an attack, acting in self-defence to protect a proxy against aggression from the regime and its affiliates. That was the line, and the line was to be held.

The US defence secretary, James Mattis, said that there was no ‘initiative on our part’, which would have been in evidence ‘if we were getting involved in a broader conflict’. Mattis was defending the administration from the charge of sleepwalking into open warfare in Syria, and thus could be expected to demur when confronted.

But Dana White, an assistant to the secretary of defence for public affairs, had no such immediate objective. She told reporters the United States was not ‘looking for a conflict with the regime’.

The result of all this is explicit and definitive, even after all the condemnation and diplomatic remonstration which the regime’s chemical attacks merited. It speaks for itself.

Observers must be clear. A retrospective reclassification of this action would have been cheap and short-sighted. It would not have solved the problem of the regime’s continued use of chemical weapons or punished that use sufficiently. But it would have been something. It would have signalled some intent, no matter how small, to do more than condemn the regime’s actions from afar.

Even that intent was lacking. Instead, the United States continues its inconclusive policy in Syria – fighting back when directly attacked, but otherwise failing to rise to even the most grievous provocations.

The red line drawn by the president, Donald Trump, and followed by his administration only encompasses the use of Sarin. It will not be extended. Chemical weapons which are not nerve agents do not worry the United States, and fail to prompt even internationalist gestures in its leaders.

And this comes at a time when more than gestures are needed. Previously, the United States and many of its allies were able to maintain that – in part because of his involvement in chemical war crimes, and innumerable other unconscionable acts – Assad must leave office and a meaningful political transition take place. This view of things, never enforced or entirely believed by American officials, survives now as a rhetorical crutch. Last year in particular, the diplomats of the United States responded to regime transgressions by deploying that old formula. Even the words themselves failed to make an appearance this time.

In light of more recent events, notably the substantial Israeli strikes on regime targets, including the apparent destruction of up to half of Assad’s air defence capacity, the American response to regime incursions on the other side of the Euphrates may be minimized, even forgotten. The same is likely true of the chemical outrages which preceded that episode, with both sinking slowly from view behind more recent occurrences.

This is unfortunate, not least because both events could have proven salutary. The world at large could, given time, have developed a sincere appreciation of the fact that the regime will likely never give up its chemical weapons unless it is punished beyond endurance. And the United States may have realised that its Kurdish proxy will never be safe from regime attack while pro-Assad forces believe they have the wind at their backs – and reckoned with the fact that the world did not end when American men and machines killed large numbers of regime soldiers and Russian contractors.

But these things will not be understood without conscious effort. Forgotten, they will recede conveniently into the background, as past events unlikely to resonate in a fast-moving war. America’s leaders wish to defend themselves from the implications of recent events, just as they reflexively defended their forces and allies. But those implications must not be forgotten. If they are not, the lessons of the last two weeks may still be learnt, which is the only way to ensure those events have any meaning.

Al-Jumhuriya, February 13, 2018

Facile Talk

In the ways statesmen and the nations they lead interact with the rest of the world, gestures can almost match actions in importance. This is why, when some politicians make gestures, they are greeted with the affirmation normally reserved for action.

For onlookers, this is easy to do. It is tempting to assume, when the correct gestures are made, that action will follow. In that way, hope can become expectation. But gestures and action, hope and expectation, are not the same. This is something all observers eventually find out, and that process of realization is often disappointing and sometimes brutal.

In Syria, brutality is more overt. And it matters how the leaders of other nations react to that brutality. Those reactions, at the beginning of the civil war, contained fulsome gestures, easily offered. Western leaders promised that they would not tolerate the survival of the Assad regime; they even intimated that they might punish its worst transgressions.

The latter gesture was proven false after the chemical outrage of August 2013. Western leaders’ gestures of support for the opposition and for the Syrian people have, as the years passed, been downplayed, or deprecated, or actively denied.

Those that remain are entirely symbolic. And those new gestures which are offered, frequently in response to acute crises or undeniable crimes, ought, it is sad to say, to be disbelieved – no matter how much hope they may offer.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has made notable gestures in his short time in office, a large number of which relate to foreign policy. It is his intention to insert France into world affairs, to make his country more essential. Macron envisions France as a mediator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, as an environmental champion, and as a cautionary voice, persuading the United States to retain the Iranian nuclear deal.

Amid all this, there is little room for detail. Accordingly, Macron’s Syria policy is vague. But one gesture of his has been met with optimism; it has spurred hope. This is Macron’s assertion, made in April last year, repeated last month, and reiterated last week, that, if chemical weapons were used by the regime, France would intervene militarily to punish Assad.

This promise is part of Macron’s wider attempt to raise France’s international profile. It fits with the stated policies of his predecessors, who maintained a more aggressive French stance relating to Assad than the Americans and British; the French willingness to intervene in Libya in 2011 was also notable. Under its recent presidents, France has also undertaken expansive counter-terrorism campaigns in the Sahel region.

But though Macron’s own suggestion of French intervention in Syria fits with this pattern, it was in fact undertaken instinctively and as a reaction to the initiative of others. His 2017 promise of countermeasures followed American strikes on the al-Shayrat air base after the regime’s use of Sarin to attack Khan Shaykhun, in Idlib Province.

Macron’s promise was pure gesture. It was calibrated for a diplomatic sea change which appeared on the horizon after Donald Trump authorised those strikes, but which did not ultimately occur.

The restatement of that threat now has echoes of last year.

Last month, there were many alleged uses of chlorine by the regime; the French wish to deter that usage and sound ready to punish. But the American response to chlorine attacks has been tendentious, arbitrarily suggesting that since it is not Sarin, the use of chlorine is not deserving of similar punishment.

The French posture resembles, at least in part, that of the Americans. It too is an attempt to signal toughness.

The United States is willing to kill hundreds of pro-regime fighters in self-defensive action; it is happy to destroy a regime airbase; its leaders will confidently talk about Assad’s barbarism and threaten to stop him if he uses Sarin again. Yet America remains ultimately unwilling to act. Its leaders are pleased to employ capricious and narrow definitions of what constitutes a chemical war crime in the service of rationalizing the irrational.

Macron says similar things; he too talks well about the regime’s barbarity. He likely means it when he says that Assad must go, or face justice, or that France stands prepared to punish the regime. But for all this, Macron simply does nothing concrete to make these gestures real.

This is partly a consequence of domestic politics. Macron, like many democratic leaders, suffers from political inertia – and is pleased, like many politicians, to survive each day without error. There is no room for translating grand pronouncements into policy.

For the French president, foreign crises are relegated to the background of his political life. They are not dealt with systematically because they attract insufficient attention. There are other things which are more pressing – more urgent than dealing with a regime which has been allowed to kill and maim and torture without restraint for seven years and counting.

This is why promises such as the above are issued. They are not entirely glib, but the gesture is made without foresight and absent a serious plan of action.

The French, for all their rhetoric, are stymied. Their subordination to the United States and its arbitrary foreign policy presents a double bind.

First, French leaders must acknowledge the American unwillingness to act, and pay apparent respect to the false and unreal definition of chemical war crimes which American leaders reach for in justification. Second, France must find ways to cover up this statement of its weakened position. Macron does this by resting too heavily on the need to prove that the regime committed each chemical outrage.

As the French must know, conclusive proof that chemical war crimes have been committed and that the regime bears responsibility will likely be forthcoming. But this proof will come too late to prompt any timely punitive response.

In a few months’ time, the French will have their proof, but no present reason to act. Macron’s policy of posturing takes the place of a policy of punishment, and means France need not act while benefiting from the sham promise that it might.

Al-Jumhuriya, March 5, 2018

Fair-weather Friends

In Turkey’s campaign to capture the Syrian-Kurdish district of Afrin appears to be entering its final stages. The complete encirclement of Afrin city itself by Turkish forces and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel allies is reported to be imminent, with just two villages yet to be taken, according to FSA sources.

If Afrin is captured it will represent a sincere problem for Syrian Kurdish leaders. Not only has a state mounted a campaign against Kurdish-controlled territory. It has done so successfully, while Kurdish pleas for international support have gone largely unanswered.

The United States, bound to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), had, before the last week, armed the People’s Protection Units (YPG) directly. American diplomats, political leaders, and military men contended that this was an essential measure, despite Turkish fears. They said it was vital for the fight against ISIS, which the United States is pursuing with absolute, monomaniacal focus.

This American loyalty to its favoured proxies was seen to count for something. It was even apparently placed above American ties to Turkey, a NATO ally. Turkish leaders expressed real disquiet at the possibility of American arms ending up in the possession of a group with significant links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has mounted a campaign of terror pursued with secessionist intent.

But American loyalty is hardly inexhaustible. In recent weeks, it has been exposed as cheap and flimsy. When Turkey began its campaign in Afrin, the United States could scarcely have been expected to intercede physically to prevent its NATO ally from taking offensive action.

This is, however, exactly what Kurdish leaders hoped might happen. They begged for international support, decrying the perceived aggression of the campaign and the casualties left in the wake of the Turkish advance. There was sporadic but real international outrage at Turkey’s actions in foreign capitals. But nothing was done.

Now Kurdish leaders are left contemplating what many have already written off as another betrayal of the Kurds. This is an essential component of modern Kurdish history, both real and imagined. Allied states cannot be counted upon consistently to aid a stateless minority. Nations cannot be relied upon to act with internationalism.

In such an event as this, when nominal friends have failed to materialize in response to plaintive requests, it must be tempting to seek out other allies. Friends of convenience may be better than no friends at all.

The ally of convenience to whom Kurdish leaders turned is the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Regime forces were presented as standing ready to come to the Kurds’ aid, prepared to hold the line against an infringement of Syria’s nominal sovereignty. That this idea fitted with the regime’s pretence at legitimacy, and with its stated ambition of reconquering and dominating every inch of the country, was presented as happy coincidence.

Assad-supporting militias arrived in Afrin last month, after Kurdish groups gave permission for regime forces to enter the canton.

From the beginning, the regime’s movement into Afrin was unserious. The forces it deployed would not check the Turkish and rebel advance. Pro-regime fighters seem mainly to have been marshalled from the nearby towns of Nubl and al-Zahraa. Some of them appear very young. But in any case, the chance of any real conflict breaking out between Turkish and regime forces, beyond minor exchanges of fire, is profoundly unlikely.

This apparent joint operation was more than an alliance of convenience. It was a devil’s bargain. The Assad regime’s stated commitment to its temporary Kurdish friends, never seriously undertaken, has become over time less secure, less sincere.

The regime is not coming to the YPG’s aid in Afrin city. It is instead happy to move into territory which is not threatened, reaping rewards from the travails of those who its stated ambition is to aid.

This alone tells observers all they need to know about the sincerity of its promises. If, on top of this, the regime eventually withdraws from the area (as some pro-Assad media outlets have suggested it will), this will underscore that the regime’s support for Afrin’s defenders was at best partial and at worst a consistent deception.

It will mean that all the rhetoric of allying with the YPG to challenge Turkish aggression was a lie, an effort which saw the defence of Afrin as nothing more than a political and military opportunity. This is ultimately unsurprising. It takes its place as part of a consistent trend in regime policy.

That strain of thought is not new. It was recently manifested in plans for a federal Syria, which, the regime says, would afford Kurdish groups autonomy within a federal system under Assad. These would instead have resulted in temporary friendship and eventual subjugation.

It is a consistent feature of regime policy. Assad and his allies are happy to cloak themselves in ideas of a pluralist Syria, secure against foreign incursion. But this is contradicted by regime policy, and its own stated aims.

The regime makes use of Syria’s Kurds when possible – as de facto allies, rhetorical props, symbols of unity – but never truly helps them, never meaningfully comes to their aid, never means it when claiming to have their interests at heart.

The regime wishes, ultimately, not to support, but to subjugate Syrians of all cultures. It may notionally adopt the cause of a minority group to serve its own purposes, but when the merits of that action diminish, the regime will lose its interest and discard whatever moral imperative it had previously claimed.

Syria’s Kurds are unwise to trust the Assad regime, even in desperate situations. The regime seeks not government but domination, not peace but the quiet of the graveyard, and will not let any moral scruple stand in the way of either objective.

Abandoned by allies, Syria’s Kurds may rationally believe that a fair-weather friend in the Assad regime is better than none at all. But when the weather turns, and the temporary friend decides friendship is no longer in its interest, the result is the same.

Syria’s minorities ought to disabuse themselves of the fiction that they can rely on the regime. Better this than realizing, when confronted with circumstances of real danger and strife, that an alliance built on a friendship of convenience is a remarkably fragile thing.

Al-Jumhuriya, March 15, 2018

The Coalition That Could Have Been

Foreign policy undertaken unilaterally is disdained and feared. It meets vast, instinctive criticism. Action, especially military action, which is seen to be arbitrary elicits the same response. When democratic states seek to act on the international stage, they desire not only to succeed in their chosen course of action, but also to be seen to be acting justly, within limits, and without caprice.

When, last month, the forces of France, the United Kingdom and the United States struck three locations associated with the chemical weapons program of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, much was made of the limited nature of this action. Only three sites were bombed; they were strictly related to the regime’s chemical weapons program and not its wider war machine; and there were no human casualties, for nor were any intended.

The allies broadcast the limits of their action, action that was intended to be punitive. Their aim was to seem proportionate and precise, their hope self-justification. Further justification was to be found in the appearance of multilateralism. The allies first tried – in the full knowledge of inevitable failure – to receive warrant to act from the United Nations Security Council.

It is useful to assess the co-operation of Britain, France, and the United States and what it does and does not mean. The alliance suggested, as was intended, a willingness among the three to act against chemical crimes, though in strictly limited terms. The allies took limited action militarily; and despite the theater at the United Nations, they made limited attempts to build a coalition of nations opposed to the Assad regime which could give moral force to, and conduct, operations that would sincerely affect the regime’s ability to commit comparable crimes.

All this must have made sense to those driving the allies’ policy. They intended justified strikes to represent some, but not give a warrant for more, action. Officials limited the extent to which allied action could be increased, and thus made meaningful. This was the intention of all parties.

The allies had time, between the Douma chemical attack and the retributive strikes, in which to build a grand coalition.

It began when President Trump tweeted a forceful condemnation of the man he called ‘Animal Assad’ and the regime’s Russian and Iranian backers. This tweet received immense international attention. World leaders who were not explicitly aligned with Assad know what he is and what his regime does. In private, officials from every country saw this truth reflected in the American president’s strident language.

This language was supported with activity. The United States and France began openly talking about military options. An American carrier group was dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean. American drones began moving more obviously, circling above the sea.

Leaders from across the world, anticipating US and allied action, signalled their assent in advance. This was not simply born of a recognition of what was to come. It was a reaction to knowledge of the regime’s true nature and demonstrated a genuine desire for its crimes to be punished, in a way which would restrain the regime’s capacity to do more and worse.

There was even the suggestion that other nations were willing to be involved in action against Assad directly. The Qatari emir, meeting with Donald Trump, stressed that Assad could not be tolerated. Qatari officials put it about that their country could strike the regime. The Saudis built upon this as a basis for rhetorical competition. Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince, directly said his country could take punitive action against Assad.

Israel not only condemned the regime and threatened a response; it took its own action before the allies did, using the situation to hit a pre-selected, personal target: the T-4 air base occupied by Iran. Israel’s generals later said that, if the Iranians retaliated, Israel’s first response would be to overthrow the Assad regime.

It is notable that countries whose relations are extremely poor – for example the Saudi—United Arab Emirates alliance and Qatar, amid a bitter crisis – were all in favor of action. To suggest that the two camps could have been brought together by striking Assad would be too much; but that each signalled willingness to join the Americans in rhetorical opposition to the regime means something. And now, as the dust settles, it signifies a path not taken.

In handling the strikes on the regime as they did, France, the United States, and Britain failed to build a broader global coalition against Assad. This coalition would have been sincerely positive. Not only could it have united disparate countries against a barbarous regime. It would also have intimidated the regime and overawed the support it receives from Iran and Russia.

Serious action against the regime would have involved not only a more extensive attack on military bases, political symbols, and components of its chemical weapons program; it would have drawn in an assortment of nations willing to face the regime down rhetorically and diplomatically, changing the nature of a civil conflict in which foreign support overwhelmingly benefits one side, which has no incentive to halt its worst excesses or to try for peace. The creation of a coalition ranged against the regime could have forced it to take diplomacy more seriously, ultimately pushing the war towards a peaceful conclusion.

But the allies were not serious and did not take serious action. Instead, the United States, France, and Britain decided to act alone and in a reduced manner, destroying three empty sites and failing to do anything more.

This is bitter enough. But it is made worse by something else. The allies noticed they received international praise for their actions. Either they misattributed the cause (perhaps believing it was their restraint that merited praise) or wondered how best to exploit this goodwill. Later suggestions from the Americans – especially that an ‘Arab force’ might be used to replace American troops in northern Syria – epitomize the latter reaction, and have drawn deserved ire.

In all the derision of this plan, something else must be said. American attempts to shift its burdens onto other backs cannot provide a unifying moment – which is exactly what concerted action against Assad, undertaken by a varied coalition, would have done. That is the coalition the allies could have built, which now looks as distant and as unreal as any past hope that the barbaric character of the Syrian war may have been changed for the better.

Al-Jumhuriya, May 4, 2018

Refuge from the Law

For refugees fleeing Syria and other failed states to Europe, nothing happens easily. The journey is difficult and long, laden with uncertainty and fear. And even upon arrival in a safe country which would be a suitable place to claim asylum, new and unseen obstacles become visible.

One of the most prominent obstacles, and one of the most difficult to surmount, is the law. The situation for refugees in Britain is not indicative of all Europe. But it serves as a useful illustration.

A source, who worked on asylum cases at the Home Office, told al-Jumhuriya that, at least nominally, ‘If [an asylum applicant] were Syrian, and there wasn’t evidence of their belonging to certain groups or the government […] they were in’.

Things are rarely that simple in reality, however.

Clara Connolly, an activist with Syria Solidarity UK who was until recently an immigration lawyer, described a system where delay is endemic.

‘If you get here’, she said, “there is a fairly straightforward asylum system – at least in theory – and Home Office policy is to make an asylum decision within six months of the asylum claim. But the slightest hiccup can derail that timetable – for example, waiting for a medical report or documents to support the claim, which should be made available at the asylum interview.’

‘Once a delay has occurred […] your claim goes to the back of the queue. There are other sources of delay – the waiting system to register a claim can be months long.’

Applicants often experience financial difficulty; they are not allowed to work and receive minimal state support. The Home Office does not pay to translate documents in support of asylum applications.

Across Europe, such obstacles make life, and the pursuit of legal status, harder for refugees. Many refugee charities, focused on supporting the necessities of life, do not give them their full attention.

One woman whose advocacy does focus on these legal obstacles is Tiara Sahar Ataii, the founder of the SolidariTee campaign. SolidariTee and its founder are both uncommon – the former because it is a student-run campaign with justifiable national and international ambition; the latter because of her youth and remarkable dynamism. Ataii set up and continues to run SolidariTee while a student at the University of Cambridge.

The funds SolidariTee raises are donated to Advocates Abroad, a non-governmental organisation whose intention is to make navigating Europe’s legal morasses more manageable for those entering the continent as refugees.

The SolidariTee campaign aims to ‘bridg[e] the gap between students who really want to help, and have some awareness that intentions do not necessarily translate into effectiveness’ and ‘lawyers in the field’, said Ataii, speaking to al-Jumhuriya in Cambridge.

Ataii has herself volunteered with Advocates Abroad as an interpreter, explaining that she had, perhaps naively, thought that the law would be uncapricious and that procedures put in place by authority would be followed.

Neither of those assumptions held true.

One lawyer in Greece told Ataii that ‘a man had very little chance of being successful in his appeal, given that often the people who examine the appeal are loath to admit that there has been a mistake; often the appeals where there had been a mistake were not successful, which I remember thinking was unbelievably backwards and cruel’.

The man in question, an Iranian whose application was not successful, and who is, Ataii notes, likely now mounting a second appeal, has a brother, whose initial appeal was accepted. The two had effectively identical stories. The difference in their accounts – and their fates – was due to something as trivial as an error in translation.

She notes that those attempting to seek asylum often face bureaucratic obstacles and long periods of waiting around.

Across Europe and the Near East, things are comparable, if not worse. Some states fail more essentially than others, turning away refugees with the suggestion that no new arrivals will be registered before the end of the decade, or asking them to return for an appointment in three years.

The choice many then face is stark: stasis, or more travel, the latter an uncertain journey in pursuit of what could prove to be temporary safety and stability.

Ataii is now working in Thessaloniki. From there, she describes a dire situation in which refugees ‘are not even able to pre-register for six months’.

‘As a result, families and often single men are sleeping in abandoned buildings for up to six months, with no access to healthcare, food’. And ‘recently there have been fights […] about the lack of food’.

Those awaiting registration have begun publicly to question whether the services in place to assist them truly exist, or whether they are in fact an elaborate joke orchestrated by their supposed helpers.

Panicked people, hearing that they have no hope of registering until 2020, fearing the violence and hopelessness of the camps, decide to head north.

All of this is difficult to consider, but its causes are predictable – and its consequences are far from immutable.

In some European states, legal perversity is an unintended consequence of overstrained services ill-equipped to accommodate the largest refugee crisis the continent has seen since the end of the Second World War. In others, notably in Hungary, the Czech Republic and increasingly Italy, these conditions are not only known but consciously created, with politicians and officials hoping to trap those aspiring to asylum in legal limbo and to deter others from applying or even entering at all.

None of this is acceptable. And it need not be accepted. The machinery and process which confine refugees conspire to perpetuate their unenviable conditions.

If this is deliberate, such things are unconscionable; if it is accidental, its remedy ought to meet with no objections. But more plainly must be done to deal with a problem whose root causes remain, and whose long tail is unlikely to vanish for decades to come. Failing to do so shames nations and publics, and does not help people seeking refuge – especially not those who seek refuge from, and not in, the law.

Al-Jumhuriya, July 27, 2018

The Rojava Reconquista

With the fall of Daraa and the end of rebel rule in Syria’s southwest, observers are beginning to talk more definitely about the conclusion of the country’s civil war. Advocates of the regime of Bashar al-Assad have claimed the conflict was close to ending consistently.

For over half a decade, this constant refrain has been repeatedly proven incorrect by the simple passage of time. But the war, though it is not ending, does appear to have fallen into a definite pattern. Syria’s future has taken a more solid shape.

Many media organizations affiliated with Syria’s rebellion have begun to shut down, their online archives disappearing from the Internet. Many of the rebels who once held out against the regime in southern Syria have now been co-opted into its structures, serving as de facto police or in continued campaigning against what remains of the territory of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Amid all this, other groups seek to increase their stock with Assad and his backers. The least surprising of these aspirants are the leadership of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces. Its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) recently declared itself not only open to talks with the regime, but willing to establish what are effectively working groups to plan navigating the road ahead. Members of the SDC made the journey to Damascus in pursuit of that objective.

A coming together of the regime and the SDF is hardly unimaginable; the SDF and the regime have a history of co-operation, something which predates the former’s foundation. The regime worked closely with what became the SDF’s leading element, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is itself the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

Kurdish groups which exercised real power within Syria before the revolution did so at the pleasure of the Assad state. Co-operation in kind continues in Qamishli and al-Hasakah, and during the Turkish-backed rebel offensive on Afrin, much was made of the possibility of regime forces aiding Kurdish ones. This did not, as time passed, occur. But the fact that it was seriously mooted betrays patterns of thought and behaviour.

The SDF and the Assad regime have a shared interest in diminishing the strength of organizations and individuals associated with Syria’s revolution. As the revolution’s failure becomes accepted and solid, moves against its advocates and allies can become more overt.

What has happened in Raqqa provides an object lesson. That city was liberated from the regime early in Syria’s war. It was later infiltrated by agents of the Islamic State and became the Syrian capital of ISIS’ claimed caliphate. Groups which had opposed and chronicled first Assadist and latterly ISIS violence, notably Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, began documenting alleged violence by the SDF. Protests against the SDF presence were dispersed with force and followed by the imposition of a curfew.

It can be said with confidence that these protestors counted among their number remnants of those who had opposed the regime before. The regime’s nature has not reformed and the prospect of its rule has not been softened in the intervening years. Such people would undoubtedly take to the streets in the future if Raqqa were given to Assad as part of a grand bargain.

The fall of Daraa comes amid an increased bureaucratic self-assurance on the part of the regime. Regime officials have made threatening gestures towards rebel enclaves, especially in Idlib province, which some, including this writer, did not expect to come so soon after an offensive in the south. Syria’s conflict could be frozen, but it is not close to ending.

There even came the suggestion, which has since been officially denied by its spokesmen, that SDF fighters may – with the sanction of its leadership or not – participate in any regime move on Idlib.

What this means in practice is less significant than what it represents. If the above came to pass, it would demonstrate that, for the SDF and the regime, the material end of the conflict is immaterial. A collective plan for what comes next may already be in operation.

That plan could well portend the kind of federalized Syria which the leadership of the YPG has long spoken of and advocated; ‘democratic confederalism’ being the official ideology of SDF-ruled northern Syria in any case. But this federal dream is itself a mirage.

It’s perfectly achievable, in a sense.

The SDF exists under the protection of the United States and the global coalition. One might expect the Americans to feel a sense of paternal propriety when considering Syria’s north, and this is in part accurate. But the present administration is inconsistent and intemperate – the governmental outgrowth of one psyche.

The president wishes to dominate Syria to the detriment of Iran, and is infrequently appalled by the Assad regime’s capacity for cruelty. But his predominant wish is to be denuded of responsibility. The United States mooted an Arab occupation of Syria; this came to nothing, but the essential desire to relinquish responsibilities remains. Irritation at the SDF changing sides (if that is the calculation) would likely be overcome by relief at no longer having Syria’s problems to solve.

Other members of the Assad coalition could be expected to play along, at least for a while. Russia would be content for its client, Assad, to be strengthened. And previous Russian attempts to improve relations with the SDF and Kurds more broadly suggest that new entreaties in the same vein would hardly be unwelcome.

The Iranian situation is more confused. Apprehension about American assets remaining unpunished could be successfully put off until the regime destroys its enemies and entrenches itself fully. Then, after all that, if the SDF becomes a problem – perhaps a threat to Assad’s desire to exercise direct power over every inch of Syria, or to Iranian and regime control of the country’s eastern oilfields – it could be crushed, too, in an endgame we have seen before in Aleppo and Daraa and the suburbs of Damascus. This is the eventuality the possibility of which drives at least some of the SDF’s desire to co-operate with Assad. But if Rojava becomes troublesome, its leaders cannot expect to be spared punishment by dint of having signed their people over without force needing to be directly applied.

Even in an eventuality where this possible violence is averted, if the SDF is disentangled from the global coalition and brought within the regime’s system, the SDF’s worst elements will be accentuated and its redeeming features flattened. Arab refugees, who are already unwilling to return to places like Raqqa, cannot expect good or equitable treatment under either the regime or an SDF which is part of an Assad-administered system.

The Syrian Democratic Forces and its leaders therefore face two unappealing options when contemplating collaboration. Either the SDF takes its place within a system whose other participants have no commitment to Syrians of all kinds or to democracy, and thus sells out its values, real or imagined; or it faces the prospect of brutality followed by surrender. Subjugation in any case. This being known, attempting to treat with Assad at all appears quixotic. But given the perpetual Kurdish search for fair-weather friends in Syria, it seems unsurprising that the SDF’s leaders will risk the possibility of profoundly dark outcomes in search of a friend now the weather for the foreseeable future appears to be settling into what seems like a predictable pattern.

Al-Jumhuriya, August 17, 2018

In Sight of Sochi

After weeks of threat and portent, the people of Idlib have been granted a stay of execution. The regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian backers will not, for now, rampage through the northern province and bomb it to rubble. Their incipient offensive has been delayed, though it has not been cancelled.

The official reason for this non-commencement of hostilities was an arrangement signed between Russia and Turkey, mere days after talks including the above and Iran in Sochi appeared to conclude without agreement.

Apparent ‘peace talks’ of this kind present their own dangers, with mass murder in Syria either staved off or made more likely by a conference solely comprising foreign authoritarians.

In any case, it is worth examining the substance of the agreement, and whether it could present any justifiable cause for optimism.

Turkey and Russia are to patrol a newly-created buffer zone at the border of the province. This stipulation is, in part, intended to prevent any unsanctioned outbreaks of violence. But the language of the agreement contains another focus: the fighting of terrorism in Idlib province.

A slight digression may prove illustrative.

The word ‘terrorism’ has served the regime and its allies well in the past. Russia’s direct intervention in the Syrian war in 2015 was always couched in terms of counter-terrorist activity, yet Russian warplanes and Russian troops ended up fighting Syria’s mainstream opposition in any case. The regime, likewise, has persistently branded all domestic enemies ‘terrorists’.

Past ceasefires have been rendered absurd by the same linguistic slight of hand. When such an agreement has contained a clause allowing all parties to continue to fight terrorist groups, the slaughter has continued largely unrestrained, and unchanged. The example of Eastern Ghouta, which was afforded an ineffectual ceasefire before being overrun, attests to this pattern.

In Idlib, performative anti-terrorism is afforded a veneer of factual support. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor organization of the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian operation, is in evidence – and in force – in the province.

HTS features centrally in the Russian-Turkish agreement. In a memorable use of the passive, The Guardian reports that fighters belonging to HTS ‘will be expected to evacuate’ the buffer zone and, latterly, the province. How exactly a terrorist group with little respect for international agreement is expected to be sold on this plan remains to be seen – the group said Monday it would make its official position known ‘soon’, with senior members having already individually denounced the pact.

If HTS insists on remaining in place, the postponed violence of a regime and Russian offensive remains present, ready to be realized. This point is made more real by Faysal Itani, who suggests that hostilities may be resumed on this pretext if HTS is not dissipated by as early as October 15. In this, the Idlib agreement resembles other ceasefires in Daraa and Ghouta, which were invariably disregarded or collapsed under the weight of continued campaigning.

There is reason to consider this agreement another example of prevarication dressed up as peace.

Nonetheless, an immediate offensive may have been postponed for reasons of practical necessity. The regime has suffered from an ongoing manpower shortage for years. Its armed forces are operating under capacity, reliant on regime-mustered mobs and militias of foreign import and organization. Its men are weary and its lines are overstretched. Roy Gutman notes that the regime is likely to be capable of mustering fewer than 30,000 troops for an offensive against a province which contains tens of thousands of rebels, many of them deported from other battlefronts as part of deals struck in surrender, many in receipt of extensive Turkish support – all alongside the battle-hardened jihadists who feature so heavily in regime propaganda.

It may be no wonder that the heralded offensive did not occur. This is bolstered by Itani’s point that the agreement is likely built on the back of ‘Russian-Turkish convergence’ on the basis of an ‘alignment of interests’. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, not only found his voice by forecasting a ‘bloodbath’ in Idlib, but also found his own global niche in condemnation. To have averted the inevitable massacre serves Erdogan’s interests, militarily as well as politically.

The Assad regime, Russia’s client, has its own reasons to accept temporarily halting its campaign to dominate ‘every inch’ of the country – a phrase which not only sunk previous ceasefires, but proved them to be part of a conscious strategy of conquest. This is evidenced by reports that the Russian and Turkish bargain is a bloodless victory for the regime, including facilitating the reopening of the M4 and M5 motorways, which connect Latakia and Saraqib, and Syria’s south and the Turkish border. These roadways, closed for four years, are central to the regime’s plans for economic redevelopment coupled with the projection of its political power.

All this talk of mutual interest preventing war can only go so far. The Russian and Turkish co-operation did not prevent the regime’s aggression in contravention of ceasefires past; and the Russian state has proven its willingness to bolster the regime’s capacity for aggression.

Carving up Syria and creating buffer zones has not ended violence in the past, merely postponed it. There is no reason to think this agreement has any more chance of holding than its predecessors. The joint patrolling of Turkey and Russia is no guarantee of peace. Even areas under the direct protection of the United States have come under protracted and serious attack by regime forces and allied militias. The regime’s fundamental aggression, and fundamental lack of peaceable intentions, is not undermined by its weakness or surrounding powers adopting a temporary posture of passivity.

One notes an undercurrent to the cautious optimism some human rights and humanitarian organizations have expressed since the deal was announced: relief. That relief is authentic, but means little good for the country’s future.

In a war which has gone on as long as Syria’s has, and which has reached such a stage of degradation, any outcome which does not, in the immediate term, include a massacre is met with nervous positivity. This is understandable, but it is also a trap, one which makes a crisis postponed look like a problem solved.

Al-Jumhuriya, September 25, 2018

Nothing Special

Staffan de Mistura’s office recently stated that he will shortly stand down as the United Nations’ special envoy to Syria. This announcement impelled cordial official references to the man and his work from governments and non-governmental organizations across the globe, but occasioned little sadness.

The conflict in which de Mistura worked brought about the destruction of a nation and the deaths of half a million.

Knowing this, experiencing this, leaves little sympathy left for the departure of a single diplomat, no matter his credentials.

And those credentials, though his four decades at the United Nations and time in the Italian government seemed technically promising, included little prior knowledge of or involvement with Syria. That attitude is something which was replicated during de Mistura’s time in post.

Esteem was extended to de Mistura by journalists in part because he seemed to care. He was famed for his empathy with refugees, his father having suffered the indignities of displacement after the Second World War. De Mistura made an art of giving anguished interviews.

But this caring demeanour did not preclude de Mistura from accepting and failing to challenge the savagery of others. Despite the United Nations’ eventual attribution of chemical attacks and other war crimes to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, the regime’s self-proclaimed sovereignty was never tested, never rejected, never undermined by the UN’s special envoy. At all times, de Mistura maintained, the regime was ‘a part of the solution’ in Syria.

The state and its complaints were not only comparable with the victims of that state; they were deserving of a special warrant of legitimacy which no violence could break. Nor did de Mistura’s own acknowledgement that the regime did not want a negotiated settlement ever change his mind.

Geneva’s hotels and conference centres were kept busy during endless rounds of negotiation, but nothing peaceable emerged from those closed rooms. This changed nothing for de Mistura. The special envoy could only conceive of a peace process involving the regime, no matter how distasteful other parties found the prospect of sitting across a negotiating table from thugs and murderers and criminals.

That distaste, indeed, was treated as ungoverned emotion; the UN-approved path the only rational response to Syria’s suffering. But when a regime whose war machine has been compared to an engine of ‘extermination’ fails to rein in its territorial expansion, fails to stop the killing and fails, finally, to engage in any seriousness with those promising a peaceful settlement, exactly how rational, opposition activists asked, is persisting with that path?

De Mistura’s vouching for Assad’s legitimacy could only alienate those for whom the regime was not the solution but the problem, and for whom any ‘solution’ allowing for the survival of the regime would be seen to solve nothing.

Opposition figures made their objections clear; de Mistura’s treating the regime as a legitimate partner – overestimating its investment in any peace worth having, overstating the importance of its sovereignty long after Assad became a puppet ruler of a rump state – rendered all attempts to heal Syria moot.

Pacification, the strategy of the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, is not peace. The special envoy appeared to believe those who fought a brutal war of pacification could be turned onto peace. He was wrong.

‘De Mistura should have said that the regime made his mission impossible but he didn’t and that cost Syrians blood and devastation’, Yahya al-Aridi, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition, told The National.

That this never happened is a matter of public record. So too is the list of numerous UN-brokered ceasefires which fell through, or failed to take root.

In fact, these ceasefires themselves eventually became an integral part of the regime’s strategy of surrounding, starving, and crushing pockets of opposition. Knowledge of these tactics was never allowed to interfere with the diplomats’ work, whose high-flown notions coincided perfectly with the perpetual belief that peace was still at hand; that murderers could be treated as, and take their place among, rational adults; that this time the guns could fall silent for real.

After the Russian intervention which saved Assad from overthrow, de Mistura absurdly urged Vladimir Putin, the man helping Assad to win the war, to point his client state in a more peaceable direction.

The above are terrible failures, but they are to an extent explicable. De Mistura’s two predecessors did not succeed in Syria; indeed, both Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi ended their postings in ignominy. It was always likely, therefore, that de Mistura would share that fate.

But the latter’s failures go beyond the path forged for him to follow. He made his own mistakes, and must be held accountable for them.

To end, it is instructive to survey the situation as the Syrian war approaches what could be its own conclusion. At stake is the fate of Idlib province, which was and remains likely to be overrun and destroyed by the regime and its backers when that coalition decides the moment is right.

De Mistura will see out his term before this final assault, a result he and his colleagues did much to facilitate. But one aspect relating to Idlib’s fate must not be forgotten amid the general criticism levelled at the departing envoy, an aspect found in de Mistura’s plan for the province.

That plan would have involved the creation of ‘humanitarian corridors’ through which civilians could travel to avoid the worst of the fighting. The destination of those who travelled these corridors would have been uncertain. It is likely those purportedly rescued from violence would have ended up merely placed in camps guarded by UN peacekeepers. The precedent for such things is hardly promising.

An extra element added specific absurdity into the proposal. It included the possibility of de Mistura’s offering to go to Idlib himself to serve as a human shield if his design was not adhered to by all parties.

Syrians are lucky the offensive never took place, and luckier still that the plan was never put into operation. But the image of de Mistura in Idlib, maybe linking arms with others in pious protest at an offensive he effectively greenlit – an offensive carried out by the killers whose legitimacy and rationality he defended – is one which will live long in the memory. It serves as an apt metaphor for his time in Syria.

Al-Jumhuriya, October 26, 2018

Past Glories

All nations look to their pasts, often as much as to their futures. National history combines elements of myth with the familiar, and provides stories which animate and galvanize. History can unify. It can awe. And the lustre of civilization past can obscure or beautify a present which is less edifying. Contemporary improprieties can be well hidden among ancient stones.

Modern Middle Eastern states make much of their pasts. They do this for obvious reasons. Nations each cultivate senses of history, sometimes distilled into the parallel concept of heritage. History and heritage are frequently sources of pride, and, in grander visions, part of the compact made between the present and the past. States without democracy, where the connection between people and power is artificial and oppressive, turn to history and the past in search of justification and drive.

The ancient world provides a particular spur, one which combines fiction and fact. Twentieth-century Europe saw this tactic in constant employment, with Italian and German fascists finding justification in an ancient past, and similar things are in common use in the modern Arab world. Egyptian regimes have for decades traded their ancient past for present-day esteem. The regime of Bashar al-Assad has made especial use of Syria’s archaeology – to bolster its image and appeal to foreign nations.

Its tactics can be seen in a recent article about the reopening of Damascus’ National Museum. The piece, ostensibly about concerns far from the present, includes quotes from a Polish expert who speaks of the ‘liberation’ of Palmyra, a Semitic-Roman ruin which had been repeatedly fought over by the regime and the Islamic State (ISIS). It is not unreasonable to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage site being recaptured from ISIS, an organization known for its destructive iconoclasm and willingness to use ancient ruins in profane media rituals. But to consider Palmyra’s re-occupation by Russia and the regime pure ‘liberation’ seems too much.

Palmyra’s battles did the Assad state no end of favors. When ISIS destroyed parts of the site and used its Roman amphitheatre as the location for murder as spectacle, every one of its claimed opponents was seen in bright contrast to this overt barbarism.

When Palmyra was fought over, a new level of jeopardy allowed the site to become not only present in the global press, but an imprint of the wider anti-ISIS campaign. Civilization on one hand; savagery on the other, fighting over a ruined and ancient territory. The eventual recapture of Palmyra by the regime – after several false starts – elicited jubilation from some prominent quarters. Britain’s recently-resigned foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a soi disant classicist who was then mayor of London, produced a column for the Daily Telegraph with a title including the words ‘Bravo for Assad’, urging the ruthless tyranny to ‘keep going’.

That the regime destroyed much of Palmyra in its efforts to recapture the city was neither here nor there. But Assad’s significant destruction of Syrian heritage – seen in the shelling to pieces of Homs’ Old City and much of historic Aleppo; and the damage done to the UNESCO-listed Crusader fortress Krak des Chevaliers; the Roman-era World Heritage Site at Busra al-Sham in Daraa Province; the Byzantine ‘Dead Cities’ in Idlib Province; and numerous other priceless remains – demonstrates that, for the regime, when power is the ambition and violence the mechanism, heritage is no less dispensable than the lives of those residing alongside it.

It is reasonable for true enthusiasts to be affected emotionally by the fates of their favorite ancient remains. When Khaled al-Asaad, an archaeologist, was killed in Palmyra by ISIS for apparently attempting to protect its secret treasures, disgust at the crime and its implications was as natural a reaction as breathing.

But that some in the West actively used archaeology to affect the absolution of the Assad regime speaks less generously of their characters.

The strong may not truly get to write history, but they enjoy posing as its protectors.

In Iraq, Nineveh and Babylon faced the same threat as the sites in Syria deemed idolatrous and apostatical. The Islamic State destroyed antiquities and holy places, selling that which they did not smash. But the eventual rescue of some of these sites was accomplished by sectarian groups whose worst excesses could be mentioned in the same breath as ISIS’ own crimes.

A degree of political distance is not only expected of archaeologists; it is essential. In that sense, the continuity between the ancient and contemporary world can be maintained in straitened circumstances. But those circumstances cannot be entirely embraced. The antiquities ministry of Egypt has done sterling work not only in preservation, but propaganda. And one could happily argue that Palmyra and Mosul and Aleppo and Damascus are far too precious to be left in the hands of Baathists and other sectarian forces whose sole saving grace is not flying a black flag.

ISIS twinned genocide with iconoclasm and did so viscerally. Any who posed as defenders of ancient monuments were afforded special significance in light of that effort. But the Turkmen and Assyrian militiamen who guarded sites in northern Iraq with obsolete weapons and little ammunition were able to extract less favourable press from the endeavor than the Syrian regime.

Archaeology is a useful stand-in for high culture and civilization of various kinds, and in many cultivated Western eyes, the Baathist sort of civilization is seen to be superior, in refinement if not in activity, to the jihadist kind.

These stories have been central to the Assad regime’s outward-facing propaganda, twinned with its attempts to be perceived on the side of ‘culture’ of various kinds; the kinds Westerners associate with leisure, peace, and refinement.

This was portrayed as contrasting with the regime’s opponents, all of whom it painted with the jihadists’ colors as radicals and vandals.

After Palmyra was finally retaken from ISIS, it served as the location for a performance by a Russian orchestra. But this association with calm is skin deep, just as any attempt to portray Syria as returning to ‘normal’ is unreasonable and likely insidious. It invests the regime with a stability it does not possess and a legitimacy it does not deserve.

Archaeology has long been used, directly or indirectly, as a projection of power. Museums filled with captured spoils are exhibitions of political and military might, as are confected stories about ancient antecedents.

When Napoleon set out to conquer Egypt, academics travelled with his Armée d’Orient. These learned men helped in the discovery of the Rosetta Stone and other treasures unseen for centuries. But their memory and their like appeal to a certain breed of modern Orientalist. Their ilk has been resurrected since, pressed into service by dictatorships as keen to win wars of image as to establish military and political control. To a certain species of neo-Orientalist, these appeals not only elicit grudging tolerance, but shouts of ‘Bravo – and keep going’.

Al-Jumhuriya, January 8, 2019

Terror’s Wars of Words

Even in wartime, bureaucracies continue to produce weights of paper. Baathist bureaucracies are no exception. Throughout Syria’s war, the extent to which the regime of Bashar al-Assad’s worst excesses have found their way onto official paper has surprised onlookers. Couched among the death certificates issued by state-run prisons lies the documentation, officially signed, legally witnessed, describing a campaign of mass murder. It is punctilious, and in plain sight.

Functionaries continue to function, in less officially murderous capacity. List-makers continue making lists. The state works both automatically and as a conscious reproach to its critics. Normality is and must be maintained – no matter how falsely that appearance is upheld.

Falsity passes over easily into farce. One of the bodies associated with the regime’s bid to project normalcy is its Combating Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Commission. The commission is named with conscious dullness, and reports of its activities appear in state media such as SANA with mundane consistency. But occasionally something more contrived, and more comical, can be produced by the same organs. These products often tell observers rather a lot about the intentions of bureaucracies, and how they aim to meet their ambitions.

In late December, the commission put out a list of names; those mentioned stood formally accused of financing terrorism in Syria and beyond. One must note that the list was an adjunct, containing addition and emendation, purportedly the product of some thought.

That the list included a large number of personages affiliated with Syria’s political opposition was unsurprising. The regime’s rhetoric is consistent on this score; oppositionists are, to its mind and in its sight, jihadists and terrorists to a man. It would be stranger if the commission had not played along.

Other names on the list make less sense, but can be understood as an attempt at maintaining consistency in the nomenclature the state reserves for its enemies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is included, as is his former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Lebanon’s embattled Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri makes the list, along with the leader of Lebanon’s Druze community, Walid Jumblatt. The head of the Lebanese Forces party, Samir Geagea, is also included – despite his being Christian. Masrour Barzani, son of Masoud Barzani, the former president of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government, also makes the list. So too, according to the pro-regime Al-Akhbar newspaper, do many other ‘political, military, religious, social, and business figures, university professors, judges, and ordinary citizens’ across the Arab world, and in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

An impressively varied assemblage indeed. How sectional Lebanese leaders are supposed to have financed presumably Islamist terrorism remains unexplained. Rumours and innuendo have circulated, accusing this or that list member of treating in some way with the Islamic State or other jihadist groups. But en masse, these allegations are amusing in their tenuousness.

Often, in the case of Turkey, such things can only be alleged in the most circuitous of language, in tellings which hold that the Turkish president, by dint of allowing his country’s Syrian border to remain porous as ISIS fighters moved in and out of Syria, gave some de facto succour to the terror group.

As ever, wilder allegations are predictably present online and in hostile media. But this is hardly surprising – and hardly ought to be fodder for an official state body determined in the serious business of designating the friends of terror.

The way in which the committee’s net is cast invalidates the integrity of its catch. Unless one defines supporting terrorism as doing anything to undermine the Syrian state, practically or rhetorically, the list cannot be said even to have the value of consistency, let alone credibility.

But, of course, that is exactly how the Assad regime does define it. Since the beginning of the official War on Terror in the early 2000s, every half-capable Middle Eastern tyrant has co-opted its rhetoric for their own ends. In the Syrian war and the products of the state’s bureaucracy, the appropriation of ‘War on Terror’ terminology has reached its apogee.

Since the inception of mass media, dictatorships have derived extensive political advantage from attacking internal enemies with dehumanizing language. From Saddam’s Iraq to Gaddafi’s Libya to, indeed, Assad’s Syria, those who decline to acquiesce to authority’s excesses can be no more than vermin – ‘rats’ and ‘cockroaches’. In the post-9/11 world, and especially since the advent of ISIS, the term ‘terrorist’ has been added as a synonym to this lexicon.

This usurpation of War on Terror rhetoric is doubly ironic: not only because it employs language in ways divorced from original intention, but also because the George W. Bush administration’s definition of terrorism included the harboring of jihadist groups and the practice of state terror. Both of those have been employed by mukhabarat states past and present – even (or especially) those which seek to re-appropriate this language to fight their own enemies and wars.

It is by now a matter of plain historical record that the Islamic State traces some of its cadres to the remnants of Iraqi Baathism, and an insurgency in Iraq materially aided by Syria’s then-new president, Bashar – including the facilitation of travel through Syria in a manner which would seem reminiscent of the more dramatic accusations aimed at Turkey vis-à-vis ISIS. As recently as 2009, Assad’s intelligence agencies were known to be meeting outside Damascus with senior al-Qaeda operatives.

No matter, for the Assadists and their friends. Nor the fact that there is great irony in a regime which has so readily partnered with Hezbollah, and other Iranian-sponsored Islamist groups with documented histories of terror in post-invasion Iraq, declaring others to be the hands behind global terror.

The approach taken by Syria’s Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Commission attracts deserved derision. But it is the product of a regime for whom the production of propaganda is as natural as paperwork. Scrutiny of the products of this effort is as necessary as amusement, in order that a regime which has survived a war it brought about no longer be able to define terror’s words as well as its wars.

Al-Jumhuriya, February 15, 2019

Syria’s Decade of Death

Last month, Josie Ensor, a journalist for The Daily Telegraph, described the anguish of covering Syria’s war. Leaving the dissonance of Beirut, and the horrors of Syria, behind, she wrote, ‘Syria is where the world collectively lost its humanity’.

While covering the war, her copy included of the aftermath of gas attacks, the remains of bombed-out houses and hospitals, and the endless grim parade of Assad regime crimes. As Syria’s war became more costly and its worst actors more depraved, the world ceased to take notice.

Ensor cites the example of Marie Colvin, a journalist deliberately killed by the regime for covering its siege of Homs from inside the city. It was Colvin’s hope that if her reporting and that of others could ‘move the needle’, the deprivations of Syria’s war could be exposed and explained, and the world would act.

Colvin is dead, and her hope remains unrealized. Her successors covering Syria for the Western press are beginning to move on, with the war in its tenth year, and no rescue or salvation in sight. President Trump’s appeal yesterday for the release of Austin Tice, a reporter abducted eight years ago near Damascus, was another reminder of just how long this has all been going on. Yet the needle and the world remain unmoved.

The horrors of Syria’s war do not lack for evidence. Footage of individual deaths and fighting abounds, jostling for space on the phones of the diaspora with video of protests and happier times. It, and documents relating to the mass murder, are collected by humanitarian monitors and international legal campaigns which aim to prosecute Syria’s many war criminals.

‘Activists, civil defence workers and defectors have gathered more evidence of war crimes than was recovered from Nazi Germany’, Ensor notes.

The murder and torture practiced in regime prisons has no post-war analogue. They are documented by thousands of photographs, large numbers of documents, and a deep reserve of testimony united by the horror those serving as witnesses were powerless but to experience.

Occasionally, regime figures are either issued international arrest warrants or deposed for trial. One is due to begin soon for state-sponsored torture. But Syria will likely never have its Nuremberg. Its tyrant and criminals know this, and act in that knowledge.

During the regime’s latest offensive, audio was released of forces loyal to the regime murdering old women.

‘She looks elderly’, one soldier says. ‘It’s clear she’s coming to pack her belongings, then she’s leaving’.

‘I’m watching them, they are about to enter a house. Yallah, I am firing now,’ another replies.

Intercepted radio messages show Russian aircraft bombing civilian targets with their pilots’ full knowledge, slyly expressed. They say they have ‘sent candy’ when their murderous cargo has been delivered.

This evidence is uncovered through investigation, but more is available in the open. Recent footage of regime forces digging up fresh graves, smashing their headstones, and desecrating the bodies within was shot and disseminated by the defacers themselves.

One million civilians in Idlib and Aleppo have fled north since the regime began its newest, and now temporarily stalled, offensive. A large proportion of them are children, who have faced a cold winter without aid. Many of these children have frozen to death.

Extensive reporting has uncovered the most definitive evidence that vicious things are being done. They are unlikely to bear a cost.

Journalists covering Syria increasingly talk about the strain it has placed upon them personally. This sounds strange, egotistical even, but it reflects the war’s duration and perversity.

Many have lost friends who were sources. All have felt the loss of figures of admiration, such as the civil society activist Raed Fares, uncountable rescue workers for organizations like the Syrian Civil Defence (also known as the ‘White Helmets’), and James Le Mesurier, who ran Mayday Rescue.

We have seen the deaths of emblems of Syria’s war, like Abdalbasset Sarout. And still the conflict persists.

The former Guardian correspondent Kareem Shaheen, who visited Idlib in the course of covering Syria’s war, said in a recent interview that ‘all this talk of “never again” and international law and the international order were meaningless’. He remembered reporting on the deaths of children and many members of a single family in a chemical attack.

Shaheen described the children’s father, whom he interviewed, barely remaining conscious at the funeral, until he was reassured by a friend of an Islamic parable: that he would see his children again in paradise, and that their souls would help him to cross the Siraat bridge on the day of judgment, sparing him the possibility of damnation if he bore their loss with humility.

This story itself induces tears. But the reason the interview received much of its circulation was Shaheen’s answer to an almost parenthetical question: ‘You’ve seen a lot over the course of your reporting. Do you feel OK?’

His voice and demeanour clearly conveyed an answer: that Shaheen is not ‘OK’ with any of this. But in doing so, he could not escape from the bitterness of the war whose evils have given him such upset: ‘It somehow feels a bit frivolous to think about our own mental health and taking care of ourselves, because the people we’re writing about are going through so much more’.

The sympathy offered to observers rather than participants in an ongoing mass slaughter can only grate. It is as though the world has passed the war itself and is now content to deal with its effects on those who are one step removed from events.

Attention directed in this way is not illegitimate, but it rings false. Observers of Syria’s war feel strain because they see the immense suffering of others and cannot induce the world to see the same things and draw the same imperatives.

The state of Syria’s war is clear. Mass killing and terrible crimes predominate and are neither prevented nor punished. Those who fled north in Idlib await the failure of another ceasefire. Many who have lost family members now suffer in the expectation that their sacrifice was in vain. Even those who are buried with dignity by their families are not saved from the barbarism of a long war fought by brutalized men.

This is what the conflict has reached: not just the victory of the graveyard, but the unearthing and desecration of those lost.  Syria’s war is more than nine years old. This is the state it occupies: developed and cultivated depravity, confidently wielded by vicious men, certain that there is no will left to stop them dead.

Al-Jumhuriya, March 20, 2020

Raed Fares and Hammud Junayd Died in Heroic Pursuit of a Free Syria

Last week, Raed Fares, one of Syria’s most visible and visionary pro-democracy activists, was murdered in Idlib.

Alongside Fares, his colleague Hammud Junayd was also killed as part of an ongoing campaign of assassination targeting Idlib’s moderates and advocates of democracy.

Fares’ murder elicited shock and sadness across the world, but not surprise. An attempt was made on Fares’ life in 2014, with another coming later; he lived in a state of permanent danger, operating openly in war, aware that those who wanted him dead were numerous, various and violent. Fares knew the risks. He knew his probable fate.

Those who killed Fares were likely jihadists. When his death and the murder of Junayd were reported, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, were broadly deemed responsible. But the killers could, on another day, have received their orders from the Islamic State, or another jihadist group; they could have been agents of the regime of Bashar al-Assad, members of the regime’s militias, Russian soldiers, or Iranian assets – so widely are Fares, Junayd and other moderates hated by violent men.

Fares’ death is so tragic not only because it represents the end of an extraordinary life, but because the story of his valiant, doomed efforts says much about the state of his country’s civil collapse. With Fares gone, it is now more apparent than ever that the dark forces against which he was ranged, and which he opposed, are gaining in strength.

The killers of all colours appear to be winning in Syria.

To understand the tragedy of this outcome, one need only extend the most cursory examination of Fares’ and his colleagues’ work. They were committed to a free Syria, even if the pursuit of that idea claimed their lives. They were figures of hope not only in their home country, but for democrats and reformers across the world.

Fares’ mission could easily attract the most grandiose labels. It was necessarily heroic. Its morality was world-bestriding.

But though Fares faced outwards to the world, he did not occupy the global circuit as other celebrity activists have done. There is no sin in that path, but it is not the one Fares took. His politics were local as much as they were global, centred around his home village of Kafr Nabel and his home province of Idlib.

Fares maintained a radio station, Radio Fresh, which was supported, until that support was cut off in recent months, by some American money. The radio station provided news on Syria’s war and satirised its worst participants – jihadists and regime alike. Radio Fresh faced intimidation and contended constantly with the prospect of closure. The jihadists could not stand Fares’ playing music.

The peaceful protests advocated by Fares included innovative banners and signs, often written in English, often referencing popular culture and recent events, which attempted to draw Syria closer to the watching world. Fares wrote the banners himself, invoking Syrian empathy with other people’s suffering. Poignant examples include Kafr Nabel’s response to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, and its heartfelt condemnation of the murder of the journalist James Foley at the hands of ISIS.

With his radio station and with his media activism, Fares put into practice a theory of local democracy which was the closest rebel Syria has come to freedom. This localism was adopted after the world whose goodwill Fares sought acquiesced to the survival of Assad’s regime. It accepted that freedom for the whole of Syria could not come about in the face of international indifference. But, Fares argued, this did not mean all was hopeless. Those who retained some freedom to act had a duty to do so – liberating Syria village by village, town by town, extricating whatever they could, no matter how small, from the dual tyrannies of Ba’athism and jihadism, and for the sake of their children.

That is how many will like to remember Fares. A recent photograph has him standing in Kafr Nabel in late September with his sons, the colours adopted by Syria’s revolution around his shoulders, demonstrating against the dark forces whose combination sought to guarantee his demise.

Fares’ murder clarifies what was already known about Syria and about conflict. Tyranny and terror will attempt to crush all opposition. Unchecked, they will succeed.

In a situation of extended internecine violence and civil war, where the extremes are allowed to grow in strength, moderates not only find themselves under pressure from both sides; they are natural targets, because they hold natural legitimacy and exhibit nobility which extremists envy and seek to destroy.

It was virtually inevitable that Fares would, in the course of his work, meet a violent end. And that says something about what has been allowed to happen to Syria by a world whose morality he tried so hard to spur.

CapX, November 27, 2018

In Memoriam: Abdelbasset al-Sarout

The death of Abdelbasset al-Sarout has elicited a great tide of grief in Syria which has been echoed and felt across the world. At his death, Sarout was 27 years old. He had fought against the regime of Bashar al-Assad for almost a decade, and had served as a symbol of defiance and hope for as long.

In his eight years of fighting, Sarout came to embody much of Syria’s revolution.

Though he was a thoroughgoing warrior by the time of his death, Sarout did not seek war. Instead, it interrupted his life and came to him.

A goalkeeper for his hometown football club in Homs, a boy and then a man who played for national youth teams, Sarout first attained a degree of prominence in protests against the Assad regime in Homs. Alongside other emerging figures of popular opposition such as Fadwa Souleimane, Sarout participated in protests against the state.

These protests quickly became less ad hoc and more organised. People leapt in the air and reeled with their arms linked. They carried banners, and chanted excitably; and upon the platform Sarout began to sing.

His songs of protest and demands for freedom became more powerful and more insistent as the protests did the same. Sarout sang for his city as well as his country. And when protests gave way to fighting as the state mounted a military response, Sarout soon found himself taking up arms.

What happened to Homs, and Sarout’s place in that conflict, is well told and well caught in the documentary Return to Homs. It follows Sarout and his fellow fighters as they crawl through ruined houses and skirt snipers’ alleys, passing through holes cut into the walls of buildings to avoid the dangers of the open street.

But more poignantly, the film also follows the path of the revolutionary figurehead as well as the fighter, including footage from the protests he led, much of which continues to have significant circulation among the Syrian diaspora.

The protests stir the heart, but other particularly moving scenes contain more private moments. They include one of Sarout slumping in a corridor, his back against a wall, experiencing exhaustion and a loss of heart. In another, Sarout tries to dig the grave of a friend, a task interrupted by the explosion of a shell nearby.

After a brutal siege in which much of Sarout’s family was killed and the neighbourhoods in which he grew up were flattened, Sarout became a fixture of the national opposition. He was evacuated from Homs to Idlib in a surrender deal by which the rebels gave up his city. Sarout was never able to return.

As time passed and the situation became more desperate, his course followed that of his country’s conflict. Sarout’s songs became more religious and laden with reference to martyrdom, their tone more in keeping with war than protest.

As the revolution weakened amid the rise of more extreme elements, Sarout trod a difficult path. With his increasingly religious tone, it was rumoured by his detractors that he had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS) – something he later vociferously denied.

Nonetheless, Sarout’s consistent opposition to the Assad regime led to what some saw as an uneasy closeness with otherwise unsuitable groups who fought the regime, including Islamist and jihadist operations. His urging of continued fighting against the regime – notably urging the opening of new fronts to relieve rebel bastions under pressure – sat uneasily with some more willing to pause fighting and negotiate.

Living in violence took its toll. For years, Sarout evaded death. The regime attempted to end his life in Homs, and though it failed, its forces were able to kill many of his brothers and family members. Later, leading his own small band of rebels, Sarout was repeatedly in danger fighting both the regime and other armed groups, including the formerly al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, which is now part of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Sarout was involved in all facets of Syria’s revolution. He hymned its original hopefulness and saw its slump into the mire of grinding urban warfare and infighting.

Like many rebels, Sarout had a complex but close relationship with Turkey, spending time there, leading protests and stirring continued support for Syria’s opposition before finally returning to his country to fight. His presence in Turkey did not diminish his magnetism, and his unannounced presence at protests drew rapture from crowds, something documented by Elizabeth Tsurkov of the Forum for Regional Thinking during her fieldwork in the country.

It was in a Turkish hospital where Sarout would die on June 8, 2019, of wounds sustained in battle against regime forces in northern Hama.

As he became more accustomed to violence, and more militarist in his thinking, Sarout represented the bitter experience gained by Syria’s revolutionaries as they comported themselves to the battlefield rather than the demonstration. In his growing religiosity, Sarout demonstrated how those amid the flames of conflict seek both solace and vengeance from a higher power.

Sarout believed in the hope of a Syria without the Assad dynasty, and determined to give his life to make that future possible. His story is that of Syria’s revolution in miniature; his death a symbol of the betrayal of that revolution.

Many Syrians, those within the country and abroad, see Sarout as a representative martyr: a golden youth whose life was interrupted by dreadful conflict. The outpouring of grief his death has inspired appears almost unprecedented. The tributes paid to Sarout do not fail to acknowledge his ideological movement. Instead, noting his alliances and his actions deepens the tragic aspects of his life, amid the wider tragedy which has befallen his country.

‘Some individuals celebrated as heroes make you doubt all stories of heroes in history books’, said Hassan Hassan, a Syrian writer and analyst. ‘Others, like … Sarout’, including his flaws, ‘make those stories highly plausible’, Hassan concluded.

A gilded youth now gone, Sarout stands for much of what his country has lost, and what, in a different light, its story can still, perhaps, contain.

The New Arab, June 10, 2019

Counter-terrorism for Hire in the UAE

Great men are rarely good men, but most people – even those with power – tend to consider themselves good. Even those whose works are used to bad ends.

This problem afflicts politicians most obviously, but it affects public servants just as much, especially when they begin offering their services on a freelance basis.

The defences offered by officials against charges of doing evil are less well established than their political masters. And things get trickier when we come to espionage, counterterrorism and matters of national security.

Richard A. Clarke is an American member of the national security establishment. His career is accompanied by all the right organisations and names. He worked in the White House and the State Department. His ultimate superiors include both presidents Bush and Ronald Reagan. He led America’s counter-terrorism efforts under George W. Bush and roundly criticised the president after Clarke left his position.

After leaving the United States government, Reuters notes, Clarke continued in the same line of work. He took his vision for counterterrorism to the United Arab Emirates as a consultant in 2008, forming an organisation first known as DREAD (Development Research Exploitation and Analysis Department), and later, though only a little less sinisterly, as Project Raven.

Under both names, these efforts were staffed largely by Americans who had experience in dealing with their own country’s counterterrorism infrastructure and its surveillance operations. Reuters interviewed Lori Stroud, who left the National Security Agency in 2014 and later found herself working in the UAE with the Raven Project.

DREAD and Raven assisted the UAE in putting together a suite of tools and operations to bolster its cyber counterterrorism. Those who work on the project claim success in disrupting the operations of Islamic State (IS) within the Emirates, substantial improvements in aspects of counterterrorism which led to the broadening of the UAE’s defences.

But as the Americans found, what their own government considers a threat to national security differs from foreign clients. They found their work assisting in the collection of information on domestic political opponents, activists, and critics of the government.

And national loyalty began to feature, with Americans inevitably among the targets of the operation. ‘I am working for a foreign intelligence agency who is targeting U.S. persons’, Stroud said to Reuters. ‘I am officially the bad kind of spy’.

Project Raven got at Americans not through American servers, which it was prohibited from doing, but rather by gaining entry to accounts used to access Google, Hotmail and Yahoo services.

Loopholes such as these allowed American officials to continue to work for the project, and for their efforts to remain on the side of various artificial lines between acceptable and unacceptable conduct. (The FBI is now investigating which lines may have been crossed.)

One of the tools they used was called Karma. It gained access to the iPhones of suspects and people of interest between 2016 and 2017, along with much of their contents – and their passwords. According to claims of some of the Americans involved in Project Raven, people of interest included Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani of Qatar, Turkish and Omani officials, and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman.

One of the people whose accounts and computers were accessed is Rori Donaghy, an activist. The project managed this by posing as a fellow traveller and suggesting, ironically, that he download software to make his communications more secure. Naturally, this particular download did the opposite of that.

Another activist, Ahmed Mansoor, was also a target. He was convicted in 2017 of offenses against national unity due to his activity on social media and sentenced to a decade in prison, where he remains. Later, his wife’s phone was tapped by authorities.

Some of these stories and these characters could be written off as justifiable according to custom, or in compliance with entirely fair but different local practices. Sometimes nets must be cast more widely than might appear necessary to ensure the right people are caught.

But to surveil activists and opposition figures so widely and so invasively appears not only contrary to the values of the Americans running this unit, but also contrary to best practice in preventing the work of the terrorists.

More tools were used, more people overseen, but little good done. The Americans involved justified their tactics as the requirements for doing a job, one which was ‘blessed by the U.S. government’. But pitching new tools and new targets, which the Reuters reporting suggests they did to gain the favour of their employers, was entirely their own idea.

Yet even the Americans who spoke to Reuters, and admitted not only their involvement but also the morally questionable nature of their activities, seemed not to mind what they were being asked to do.

‘We’re working on behalf of this country’s government, and they have specific intelligence objectives which differ from the US, and understandably so’, Stroud said.

‘Some days it was hard to swallow, like [when you target] a 16-year-old kid on Twitter,” she told her interviewers. ‘But it’s an intelligence mission, you are an intelligence operative. I never made it personal’.

Above all else, Stroud said, ‘you live with it’.

As the technology to conduct elaborate surveillance becomes more common, and as the wages and consultancy fees of those with the expertise to mount these programmes come more and more within the price range of most authoritarian states, ‘liv[ing] with it’ ought to be re-examined.

Across the world, notably in China, we see the marriage of technology and autocracy. It is not about the security of the nation, but rather the security of the state and its leaders. Foreign contractors engaged in this kind of work no doubt come to appreciate the distinction. So should we all.

The New Arab, December 3, 2019

Shamima Begum’s Media Circus

When, four years ago and at the age of fifteen, Shamima Begum first left her family and her country to join a group of religiously-inspired murderers in the Levant, I doubt she expected that her future life would include so many TV interviews.

But that is how she spends her days now the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate has all but collapsed.

Confined, with both IS members and IS victims, to a refugee camp in eastern Syria, Begum has not only come to represent the Islamic State group’s protected and inglorious denouement, but also to stand in as physical representation for some of the difficult questions facing states and societies about what to do next.

Begum was not meant to be the main attraction.

The media circus in the Syrian desert which has accompanied the last few weeks of fighting against ISIS has another intended purpose, one more ripe with portent and happening.

Journalists have trouped in great numbers to Baghuz – a town on the bank of the Euphrates – because that is where the Syrian remnants of the Islamic State group have found themselves beached.

This can be seen, in one sense, in a similar manner to the way this journalistic tribe travelled to Mosul in large numbers three years ago when the battle for that city began. The world’s media sought to document events which contained a sense of something epochal – history playing out in front of their eyes.

But Baghuz is not Mosul. It and the story it typifies are smaller and murkier. The conclusion to the Islamic State has been greatly anticipated and optimistically predicted, but what has come to pass is less a grand finale than a daily search for new things to say.

The obvious problem then presents itself. What happens when the conclusion is inconclusive; when the hoped-for end does not come – or does not prove to be the end?

IS retains its capacity to fight elsewhere, for one. It remains capable of operating with Syria’s deserts and Iraq’s ungoverned spaces; it still retains global reach – no doubt overstated, but nonetheless present. And although policymakers hardly printed playing cards featuring IS leaders’ faces, the fact that some in its hierarchy appear to have melted away, including the self-declared caliph, leaves a situation already lacking the neatness of drama denied its very dramatis personae.

But even taking the above out of consideration, the Baghuz battle has been free of the conclusion many sought.

Instead, journalists spend their days interviewing a few IS members who have left the caliphate’s physical limits and now inhabit nearby refugee camps. Begum is one, and after her initial appearance in an interview conducted by Anthony Loyd of The Times (printed under the headline ‘Bring me home’), Begum has become a feature of the press and of television news.

Loyd may have found her, but Begum is now effective property of the national press en bloc.

It is hardly unreasonable for the British press to question a fellow citizen whose initial disappearance to join the Islamic State became not only a story in its own right but also emblematic of the broader exodus. The way these interviews occur, with one journalist after another interviewing Begum, is an odd spectacle – not only because she seems unaware of the damage her words have done to her case and is blind to the value of silence, but also because, in all the rituals and formulae these encounters have begun to assume, Begum seems more like a bored celebrity doing press for a new film than the willing wife of several warriors for god.

But the oddity of the spectacle is only the beginning. Of more import are the debates these marathon days of interviews spark in Britain and around the world.

Begum’s comments, including her odd self-pity and her apparent unrepentance, have not been received temperately at home. That she has been condemned for her actions is not a surprise; that politicians have competed to make those condemnations sound serious, ditto. More surprising is the extent to which Begum is not so much an emblem of a wider problem as a case unto herself.

Her citizenship was initially debated, then ceremonially revoked – on the tenuous ground that she could be Bangladeshi. Under no circumstances, it seems, will she be either allowed to return to Britain or brought back in captivity to face criminal trial.

Hundreds of British men and women besides Begum travelled to join the Islamic State group. Many were killed in Syria, Iraq, or in transit. But a large number managed to return, and some – including two of the ‘Beatles’ cell whose murders of journalists and aid workers elicited global shock and revulsion – exist in strange limbo, corporeally imprisoned by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces but aimed towards an uncertain destination.

Occasionally, the SDF suggests it might not be able to contain so many foreigners, and that other backs ought to bear some of the load. These complaints are accompanied by threats – some credible, others less concerning – of realising or trading ISIS prisoners rather than caging them indefinitely.

The British press, much like the international media, has treated these concerns with sporadic attention. But even when Alexanda Kotey and Shafee Elsheikh, alleged to have been ‘Beatles’ were interviewed in a comparable setting to Begum, they were not subject to the same hysteria.

After years of tactfully avoiding any talk about ISIS returnees, Britain has decided to strip some of citizenship on the basis of their individual cases. This is a bad outcome, one created by the odd media environment ISIS’ purported final stand has fostered – the end of a caliphate which was, in the West at least, as much a media circus as a geopolitical crisis.

The New Arab, December 3, 2019

The Death of Soleimani and the Survival of Iraq’s Protests

So surprising was the death of Qassem Soleimani, former leader of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps — Quds Force (IRGC — QF), that it was fair to suspect — at least initially — that he was killed by mistake. Perhaps America had meant to kill his travelling companion, the leader of Kataib Hezbollah Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, instead, with Soleimani merely (in that odd euphemism) collateral damage.

That would have been a fitting fate for someone whose military career caused the deaths of so many — thousands of them civilians: hardly priority targets for most soldiers fighting most wars. But not for Soleimani and his subordinates, like the late al-Muhandis.

It is blackly comic too that, in its first act of retaliation for Soleimani’s death, Iran decided to bomb Iraqi airbases which housed foreign troops, killing no foreigners, wounding a number, but critically hurting a number of Iraqis — all before toning down its language.

With the ritual spilling of some Iraqi blood, Soleimani was avenged, or so the Iran state wishes to suggest. That would be a quite fitting memorial, given how much Iraqi blood Soleimani was busily engaged in spilling at the time of his death.

The shooting down of a civilian airliner, with Canadians and Ukrainians and Iranians aboard, at the loss of all lives, added more tragedy to farce.

Another tragedy was in progress in Iraq while the world briefly devoted itself to Soleimani.

The exact number of protesters who have been killed in demonstrations in Iraq is disputed. But it is over 600, and likely a number more.

Protesters have been shot by snipers, whose affiliation was declared to be unknown by Iraq’s military. Other demonstrators have had their skulls shattered by tear gas canisters fired directly and purposely into their heads. A number of activists and journalists have been assassinated by gangs of men after they left protests, in moments where they were briefly alone and without guard.

These facts have not been changed by Soleimani’s death, and nor have they been addressed. It is worth noting once again why so many Iraqis are on the streets, what they want — and why they are right to feel aggrieved that no one else seems, even slightly, to care.

The protesters are driven by distaste of an elaborately corrupt political system on which their votes and voices have no purchase. They see the results of its dysfunction all around — in the slow rebuilding of the country after the campaign against the Islamic State, in the failure of government after government to provide services, and in the continued presence of militia rule and the mob violence it can approximate.

Across Iraq, rivers are polluted and towns unrebuilt where they were destroyed. The currency is weak and unemployment is high, with poverty even more pronounced.

Stasis dominates in cities and towns across the country, and the vaunted defeat of ISIS has not led to or guaranteed peace.

That documents recently showed the effective capture of the Iraqi state by Iranian operations only serves to make the point: Iraq’s government is so crooked, and so ineffective, that its suborning to Iranian interests not only didn’t make international news; it barely represented a change from the assumed norm. A bureaucracy not assumed to be run by its enemies — as Robert Conquest jestingly described — but actually run by its enemies, with no difference in effect.

Iraq’s political system has reacted to these protests not with accommodation, but with force. And when that did not stop the demonstrators, factions within the political system attempted to co-opt and hollow out their goals.

Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shia cleric who was troublesome during the occupation and attempted to transform into a parliamentary force in 2018, has done his best to infiltrate and undermine protests.

Variously operating as an Iraqi nationalist and a figure in international Shiism, Sadr has played a double game; he has endorsed protests, then rescinded his endorsement, but not before attempting to reform the demonstrations in his image and under his auspices.

To protesters, he is at best a symbol of the very system they wish to reform or remove; at worst, given all the violence, his efforts are an insidious form of sabotage, an arsonist claiming special privileges as a volunteer fireman.

Some things are clear. Protesters want to reform the political system; they want an end to Iran’s domination of Iraq; and they — disproportionately young — want finally to feel, after almost twenty years of conflict and interludes which resemble it, that they live in a modern society where individuals are able to reap the benefits of peace and stability rather than being prisoners of fortune to its worst circumstances.

When Soleimani died, a lot was said and emoted about his importance. To the Iranian people most of all — although, as a great deal of reporting has shown, he was hardly a figure who enjoyed universal approval and respect. But it was also assumed, a little too hastily, that his death on Iraqi soil would elicit entirely negative reactions from Iraqis. That simply has not happened.

Many demonstrators, entirely reasonably, worried about further conflict where Iraq could serve as a theatre of war for two external forces. But others called Soleimani’s death a ‘victory’, while stating that it was his people and his networks — including Muhandis — which had killed demonstrators and had reduced Iraq’s politics to a sideshow, in which Iranian operatives openly boasted about their control of events.

All talk of a third world war has subsided into an uncomfortable silence. War was never likely, but even the most excitable cannot now maintain the pretence. But while talk of global conflict has fizzled out in a welcome way, discussion of Iraq’s protests and the fates of those on Iraq’s streets has not replaced it.

A momentary global fixation has once again passed. But that is not enough. Soleimani’s death was a surprise and definitely punctuated this period of Iraq’s importance. It did not end it. The least we can do, now his death is confirmed and its fire has partially abated, look straight and squarely at what is going on before our eyes.

Medium, February 13, 2020

Kidnapping and Murder

Yesterday or thereabouts, deaf to all the clamour this action created, the Iranian state put Ruhollah Zam to death. Zam was a journalist and blogger of a provocative bent. The Iranian state made sure to say that his work was provoking when defending its decision to end his life.

Zam was in his forties and his death elicited immense, immediate horror – experienced quite broadly. It was bizarre that he was chosen for punishment; and barbaric that the punishment in question was capital. On this at least, the world was uniformly agreed. What else to say beside condemnation – that was a little harder to decide.

Imagine this. You head or have a senior role in a state which executes minor critics which it finds troublesome. Hold the thought in mind. How might something of this sort feel? Would it feel powerful, even meaningful – doing to death the enemies of the state, the enemies in turn of righteousness? Or would it instead soon become another day at the office? – the selection of targets, their imprisonment, their appeals, the outcry, and the bitter final act: all of it shot through with bureaucratic boredom and procedure.

Even the ability to kill at random, without any sense that is externally visible – it could become something of a burden, and a drag.

Iran does this more often than you might guess. It takes foreigners hostage routinely – for leverage, perhaps, or simply because it can. Kylie Moore-Gilbert, an Australian academic, was released from Iranian custody in November. She had been picked up by Iran two years before, and imprisoned on the specious charge of spying. Her treatment was reportedly bad – but that’s hardly uncommon among the foreign detainees.

Deaf to the outcry – deaf to the strangeness of the accusations – Iran held onto her for god knows what reason, until she could be usefully exchanged for equivalent prisoners a month or so ago. It is not inconceivable – far from it – that she could have found herself killed. It was either that or be swapped, like some commodity, by a reckless and cold-hearted state.

Zam could not be traded and was possibly not worth all that much alive. He ran a channel on Telegram, the encrypted app, which had many followers. He was accused of marshalling unrest by noticing protests within Iran and giving his own view of the same to foreign media. Zam was in exile in Paris, not holed up in Tehran. How he arrived in Iran and was led to his death remains unclear.

Iran knew what it wants people to think of his arrest. Its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) rather glories in what it claims happened. Zam was ‘guided into the country’ via a ‘complicated intelligence operation’, its spokesmen held. This is almost certainly meant to sound more sophisticated than it could possibly be, and to strike a more oblique sense of fear into the right people than it perhaps deserves.

Implied entrapment of this kind is a stock in trade of petty tyrannies the world over. From China to the pettiest police state going, the plan is the same: even exiles, even disapora types whose feet have never touched their fathers’ soil, must know it – that they are under observation, under surveillance, and on notice. Foreign residence is no defence and no protection. To offend the state is betrayal, and to criticise is a hell of an offense.

One of the stories to which Zam was attracted was the protests against the Iranian state which occurred in 2017–18. Since the same sort of protests were bubbling up once more (before the pandemic tore through Iran and likely killed far more than official numbers could possibly convey), presumably the state is jumpy and in need of the means to send a message.

One more recent execution also fits the bill: that of the wrestler Navid Afkari. He was an athlete of some promise but he was killed by the state in Shiraz this year. The charge under which he was held, and for which he received two death sentences (although, when it came to it, only one was needed) – why, that was the death of a security guard in the same protests that Zam saw as his duty to cover.

Afkari is widely believed to have been tortured into making his confession – the words that condemned him to one of those two state-sponsored deaths. He confessed to an awful lot. You can even read the full list, badly formatted, on Wikipedia. Who could have put it there?

Needless to say, whether Afkari actually killed anyone is hardly the subject with which the state was concerned. He said he did, after the requisite force was applied. And anyway, the message sent was a godsend.

A young man of talent brought low by his involvement in those protests. His status and the international appeals on his behalf coming to nothing. His purported victim a lowly figure, perhaps, but a guarantor of order. And all of it resulting in a squalid little murder in a prison yard in an Iranian city. What a signal to be able to send.

See how these people end up? That is the truth of these actions. Kidnapped, entrapped, renditioned. All of them brought back in chains to face punishment disguised as justice.

The brutality is as much the point as the randomness of these proceedings.

In the iron reasoning of classical philosophy, the tyrant was not only the oppressor of others and the inevitable vessel into which corruption poured and from which it issued. He was also the least free and the least capable of all. Ruled by instincts, never confronted by contradiction – the tyrant soon succumbs either to overthrow by the ambitious or self-annihilation.

In the real world, you may have noticed, things go rather differently.

States which kidnap the citizens of other countries are largely bought off or allowed to use their hostages to bargain. Those countries who snatch their own off the streets of other states are possibly told not to do so in future. When they dispose of domestic enemies they may receive a strongly worded protest.

When an athlete is murdered on the say so of the courts, officials in the most corrupt of sports might say how disappointing all of this is from a nation which regularly sends its people to compete in the Olympic games.

But crucially, none of this matters. It does not matter even slightly. Those enemies the tyranny saw fit to kill are dead. If it has another killing urge, more will join them. Perhaps to dissuade new protest and new internal dissention. It might even work.

The game is well-established now, and in this the state – unlike its functionaries – is not likely to become bored. Habib Chaab, an oppositionist, arrived in Iran from Turkey for his own reasons; but his fate was to be arrested publicly and paraded in that state before the world.

Whether he will ever be released, or whether his imprisonment will terminate another way, is still in question. But Turkey at least has acknowledged one aspect of all this whose details may be known – the story surrounding Chaab’s cross-border travel, from his exile in Istanbul to an Iranian cell.

It was, Turkey now says, a sophisticated – and definite – operation. An operation likely to be repeated the world over. No one can be wholly safe from this kind of cross-border kidnapping, nor say for certain that murder – coldly sanctioned by the state – is unlikely to be its result. This is how the world is. And nothing else means a damn thing.

Correspondence, December 14, 2020

Iraq’s Year of Assassination

Just over a month ago, the Iraqi scholar and historian Hisham al-Hashimi was murdered in Baghdad. His killers, two of them, arrived on a motorbike and did not hang around. They are yet to be identified.

Al-Hashimi’s death was a shock and an aberration, but not because of its gangland character; instead because of who he was. Many involved with politics and protest have been murdered lately in Iraq, but few like al-Hashimi. Gregarious and well-liked, he had many friends, and his work was read and cited across the world. A sometime critic of the failures of the state, he was nonetheless close to many in Iraq’s political class.

Iraq’s new prime minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi, was a friend of al-Hashimi in life, and was affected by his death. Al-Kadhimi promised an investigation to find al-Hashimi’s killers. The investigation is yet to bear fruit.

Dissent in Iraq is a dangerous business. It often brings violence in its wake. But al-Hashimi did not fit the profile of many Iraqis targeted by an extraordinary series of political murders, in what has become a year of assassination. This spate of violence is more than mob violence, or the result of troubled times which still contain a threat from the surviving Islamic State. Instead, it dates to the beginning of large-scale protests in October last year.

It was largely Iraq’s youth which, from late last year, filled squares and chanted slogans. They had grown up in two decades of war and poverty, exacerbated by a series of incompetent governments, and presided over by an elite increasingly openly in hock to Iran.

These protests were violently put down by mystery gunmen, notably in Tahrir Square in Baghdad, where hundreds of protesters were shot with live ammunition last year. Some were deliberately hit with tear gas cannisters, shattering their skulls. A number of activists and journalists who left the protests were followed by men on motorbikes and shot as they returned to their homes.

Al-Hashimi supported the protests and criticised the influence of Iranian-sponsored militias on Iraqi politics, but his moderate tone, and closeness to the heart of Iraq’s public life, made the shock of his murder all the greater.

In Basra, in Iraq’s south-east, where protests against adverse local conditions have simmered for months, the murders are more routine. Last week, Tahseen Ali, an activist, was fatally shot. Three days later, a friend of his, Ludia Remon, was also attacked but survived.

This week, Reham Yaqoub, a young medical worker from Basra and a prominent figure in the city’s protests, was shot by an unknown assailant. The same day, four other activists were murdered: three in Basra, and one in Baghdad. Not long ago, Iran’s Mehr News Agency had alleged that several protesters in Basra were agents of the American consulate in the city. It ran Yaqoub’s photograph in accompaniment. It was soon widely reported that, in the past year, all five of those killed had met American representatives.

In Basra and across the country, the identities of the would-be assassins are officially unknown. But they are hardly difficult to discern.

Ali, Remon, Yaqoub and other demonstrators were consistently threatened with death by militia leaders, and have been roughed up by militia muscle, since protests began. When demonstrations began in October, those participating were targeted by snipers. Military officials denied responsibility and all knowledge of what was going on. They seemed rather uncomfortable at having to do so in public.

The snipers were later linked in no uncertain terms to Hashd al-Shaabi, a militia umbrella group formed in the campaign against the Islamic State and closely tied to Iran, by two Iraqi officials anonymously speaking to Reuters.

Before he was killed earlier this year, alongside the general and mastermind of Iran’s network of proxies across the Middle East Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Hashd was Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Muhandis led the Hezbollah Bridges, an Iranian proxy as overtly proud of its sponsors as it is threatening to Iran’s enemies. There is little doubt about where its loyalties lie.

That Iran is willing to assassinate domestic protesters in Iraq suggests both a power of action and also fear. Iran’s capture of the Iraqi state is remarkable and was exposed in a series of leaked documents earlier this year. Militiamen run government departments and oversee the bureaucracy. Their armed mobs refused to disband or to disarm after the declaration of victory against ISIS almost three years ago. Theirs is a remarkable story of state capture, only recently undercut by international notice and domestic opposition.

Iran is both comfortably powerful enough to kill on Iraq’s streets without its influence being acknowledged and its agents prosecuted, but still feels sufficiently threatened by civic action that a campaign of murder is deemed necessary to protect its stake.

Militia violence against protests is remarkably brutal, and makes shocking reading, but could be considered almost an instinctive gesture of an occupying power; even the natural reaction of a foreign-sponsored force determined to preserve its position in Iraq by putting down popular opposition.

Killing demonstrators at the site of their protests is intended to make protesting a dangerous activity and to keep people away from the barricades. Al-Hashimi’s murder was more flagrant and more extraordinary. He was a fixture of Iraqi national life with real proximity to power.

Though al-Hashimi was a critic of the militias’ overreach, he could likely have been mollified. But Iraq’s year of assassination leaves no room for assimilation. The widespread killings of journalists and activists, and of a scholar who was close to protests in thought and speech only, introduces a different kind of crime.

It speaks of a militia movement acting beyond the law and outside the bounds of a state its people have already taken over. The militias are not, as some had hoped, weakening and retreating in light of popular criticism and the death of Soleimani; instead they are retrenching, and demonstrating new willingness to kill with impunity.

 Al-Kadhimi’s government has declared hundreds of those killed in demonstrations last year ‘martyrs’ and has moved to provide financial support for their families. There is even talk of prosecuting the odd militia member who took pot shots at the protests.

But as al-Hashimi’s unsolved assassination has shown, there are limits to what even willing politicians can do when no one is invulnerable, even a friend of those in office. And while all this is discussed by those in office, the power remains with those armed groups which operate beyond the law, and at the behest of a foreign power.

The Critic, August 22, 2020

Hope and Fear for Belarus

In his not uncontroversial White House memoir, The Room Where It Happened, John Bolton describes how the administration he was part of protractedly failed to liberate Venezuela. 

Things began with promise. But care and attention was lacking – in the nascent Venezuelan government-in-waiting, and in those outside forces who nominally sought to ensure a change of government.

Here are some of the facts Bolton laments. The Venezuelan president-in-waiting, Juan Guaidó, was a young, telegenic character who quickly attracted international recognition after his autocratic opponent rigged an election. An international effort, led by the single-issue Lima Group of American states, attempted to afford him diplomatic legitimacy. He addressed rallies in the major cities and there appeared significant popular favour on his side. The young leader travelled abroad for his safety and to gather support.

But all the while, bad omens were massing. The military and the state institutions, despite wavering, largely supported the status quo and its president, Nicolás Maduro. A foreign power, in this case Cuba, sent its people in to restore order and prop up the regime, while another, Russia, supplied personnel and propaganda. Cubans ran state enterprises and marshalled pro-regime paramilitaries, the Colectivos, which disrupted anti-government protests and intimidated opposition figures. In the White House, the president and his officials vacillated, offering overt support but lamenting the claimant’s lack of a global profile. They did not send troops to reinforce nearby countries and they withdrew their embassy staff at the first sight of danger.

After months of popular anger and discontent, the moment for revolution passed. By and large, the military did not defect; the legal manoeuvrings of the insurgent National Assembly did not bear fruit; and Guaidó himself has ceased his world touring and now faces challenge after challenge from inside his own faction.

Rather than ringing in a new government, Venezuela’s 2019 constitutional crisis now appears as little more than a missed opportunity. The country’s democrats are unlikely to get another chance for power.

These unwelcome memories are unhappily close at hand this year, as the people of Belarus take to the streets in uncommon numbers to demonstrate against their own autocrat’s rigged election. 

The focal point for these protests is Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a jailed activist who believes she was denied victory by fraud in the country’s recent presidential election. 

She is young and telegenic. She has received the support of much of the western hemisphere, whose nations do not accept the victory claimed by Alexander Lukashenko. Tikhanovskaya’s supporters and many thousands of others called for new elections, and spilled into the streets for protests without precedent in Belarus. And Tikhanovskaya herself, fearing for her safety and attempting to drum up international support, fled the country as the state reacted with violence to the democrats’ challenge.

Like in Venezuela, there are some initial signs in Belarus to encourage. And unlike in Venezuela, the opposition in Belarus seems harder to undermine. It is not led by one man, but rather comprises a decentralised network of political amateurs, many of whom already have people they love in jail. It does not rest on the application of a constitutional technicality to overthrow the sitting president; instead, all its people demand are fresh elections. There is talk of defection from the state apparatus, with retired military and police figures, and employees of state media, supporting the demonstrators. Large protests and the prospect of a general strike make a mockery of the government’s attempt to carry on as if all is usual and above board. In his public appearances, Lukashenko is often barracked and appears as detached from reality as a Ceaușescu.

But behind the scenes, and increasingly openly, foreign influence which weighs against democracy is beginning to be felt. Russia stands firm behind Lukashenko, and aircraft associated with its FSB security services have made a number of telling trips to Minsk. 

The government has mounted an increasingly violent crackdown which has claimed a number of lives, included the torture of imprisoned demonstrators, and featured the arrest of foreign journalists. More than this, those protesting fear the prospect of more direct Russian intervention, which could leave a number of them dead and their country no closer to freedom.

Least encouragement of all comes from abroad. The United States is barely involved, being busy enough with its own oncoming presidential election. And although many European nations, like good neighbours, have refused to recognise the election and have called for another go, their posture is one of complaint. This attitude seems bound to go down in defeat. Perhaps the sanctions European countries will soon levy on Belarus may have the desired effect. But control of the state is more important; and that has already been conceded.

When the European Union wishes to discuss the situation, its leaders telephone Vladimir Putin. Such a posture can only sell the democrats of Belarus down river. 

When Bolton considered the chances missed and opportunities squandered in the failed pursuit of a free Venezuela, he gave the White House and the president low marks. Tactical errors by the opposition, cowardice among those who did not defect, and the “cold, cynical pressure” of Russia and Cuba applied to conserve the dictatorship – all of these told. But scattershot American involvement, the thing the White House could most control, failed to tip the balance. The president talked too long to Vladimir Putin while Cuba took control of the situation on the ground.

The protests in Belarus are unlikely to cease and the hearts of many around the world are with them. But without serious, concerted external pressure, the willingness of dictatorships to defend each other cannot be underestimated.

It is a sad possibility that the protests in Belarus may be as badly mishandled as the bid to free Venezuela. A new leader may be declared, international groups of supportive nations may be orchestrated, some pressure may haphazardly be placed on the old regime. But it remains distressingly likely that Lukashenko – like Maduro – may yet hang on.

The Critic, September 4, 2020

France, Mali and Military Coups

It was difficult to disagree with France’s intervention in Mali’s civil war in 2013, and hard to dispute its effects.  Various jihadist factions including al-Qaeda, after first allying with and then repudiating the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), had begun to capture great territory and impose barbaric rule on millions.

The jihadists had occupied the ancient capital of Timbuktu and begun to destroy its antique treasures. They had, as is their style, banned music. Al-Hassan Ag Abdoul Aziz Ag Mohamed Ag Mahmoud, the Islamists’ police chief, mounted such a ‘reign of terror’ that he is now before the International Criminal Court in the Hague charged with war crimes.

Fighting these people and pushing them back was a moral mission in which many countries were delighted to partake. But France did the most and accordingly took the credit.

Its aircraft hit jihadi targets and its troops assisted Malian forces in the retaking of towns. All of the country’s major settlements soon fell once more under there sphere of the Malian state. Operation Serval was a notable and creditable success, something France’s governing class was hardly shy of mentioning.

But taking back and holding the major settlements of Mali did not solve the problem. The Tuareg opposition to the state continued unabated, and has been addressed by a series of unsatisfactory and not entirely effective ceasefires. And across the Sahel, Islamist forces, including al-Qaeda and offshoots from the Islamic State’s centre in the Levant, were gathering their strength and biding their time.

A larger, pan-national counter-insurgency mission was needed in the Sahel, and France was the only foreign force willing to commit men in large numbers. Even then, this was a light-touch operation, largely worked out in coordination with local states and their militaries. France’s Operation Barkhane involved 6,000 troops at its height, with groups of soldiers scattered between a number of bases. Its forces mounted successful raids on jihadist outposts and provided logistical support to local governments.

In the course of these missions, French forces suffered a slow trickle of casualties, but carried on fighting because the losses of the jihadists were far greater. The fact that French forces were in the area also helped others. French troops and aircraft arrived to support American and Nigerien special forces who were subject to a terrible ambush by ISIS in October 2017. Several of the Americans and Nigeriens were killed, but the arrival of French aircraft likely saved the lives of those trapped. 

But despite these successes, the story of France’s Sahel campaign has been one of rising and falling tides. Jihadist forces have built up their strength in the region, and have conducted bombings of French convoys as well as attacks on the states France is engaged in supporting.

In Mali and other countries, the French presence has hardly been universally popular. And in France too, there is opposition to waging an expansive military campaign against a number of adversaries across a wide geographical area. When France sent more troops to Mali in January, both Malian activists and a number in France reacted with irritation and incredulity.

Even among allies, there is disagreement. France finds itself pushed and pulled in a number of directions, including by the United States, whose desire to end foreign entanglements endlessly contradicts with the American desire to seek out and destroy its most threatening enemies. France has infrequently had to chasten American officials who claim simply to want out.

In the American press, the self-serving term ‘forever war’ – invented to describe the American experience in Afghanistan (and decidedly not the Afghan experience of the same) – is now freely applied to France’s campaigns in the Sahel, and to American involvement by association. The common view in European, African and north American capitals is that French forces are chasing insurgents around the desert, occasionally getting into scrapes, and altogether doing very little.

This is naturally an unfair conclusion, but it is pervasive. And so a military coup in Mali, which began last month, could hardly have come at a worse time. It finds global opinion of France’s role in the region at a nadir.

The Malian armed forces, the partners of French soldiers and their companions on many an operation, mutinied last month and overthrew the civilian government French troops was meant to defend. The jihadists never got to the capital of Bamako, but within days of these mutinies beginning, the army had deposed the president and the prime minister and had functionally taken control. Now in power, they don’t appear to be going anywhere.

All Mali’s partners and friends could do was expel the new regime from the African Union and, irony of ironies, from the Francophonie, an organisation of French-speaking states upon whose cultural ties French military action in Africa is often implicitly hung.

It was not a jihadist insurgency that overthrew a Saharan government, but a military coup, something France, for all its forces in the region, was ill-equipped to prevent or to foresee. And so a mission which began with triumph and the salvation of Mali finds itself unsure of how to proceed, after six years of fighting jihadists, but not necessarily shoring up African states.

The Critic, September 8, 2020

Can We Help Belarus?

Superficially, the democratic world is of one mind and one voice when weighing the future of Belarus. Both citizens and those who lead us are meant to agree. We see Belarusian people surge out in protest every week, and our hearts go with them. When they are increasingly maltreated by authority, beaten and arbitrarily arrested and worse, we feel their fear and their pain. We want that pain to end.

But the way ahead is uncertain. There is disagreement on what possible future for Belarus is best, on what actions are most likely to bring this about, and indeed on whether any good option at all is open.

In my piece in earlier this month, I channelled the fears of some of the less euphoric demonstrators. They had seen the state’s response to their protesting grow more violent, and see now authority’s efforts to destroy their movement become more elaborate.

Opposition activists have been arrested in large numbers. Many of their number have been beaten. Some of the most troublesome have been forcibly ejected from the country, marched to the border and hustled over – something Maria Kolesnikova foiled by tearing up her passport in a spontaneous gesture of defiance and nous, just before she was to be pushed out of the country and into Ukraine.

All of this is dramatic; and what is apparently at stake is no less so. When I wrote for my earlier piece for The Critic, I wondered whether a positive resolution was necessarily on Europe’s mind. With the world’s dictatorships bound together by common interest, and clearly willing to prevent their fellows falling to democracy, I speculated whether the apparent passivity of the free world would melt away before Russian resolve.

The piece elicited more response than I expected, and more essential criticism than I had anticipated. Surely I must understand, some correspondents said, that there are many incorrect ways to aid the people of Belarus. That a Russian intervention had to be massaged away by diplomacy rather than anticipated and counteracted with policy.

A common view holds that only when Lukashenko is deserted by his allies can there be any hope of a transition to democracy. And that while a signal from Russia that Belarus’ president is finished might spur some in the country’s elite to reconsider their support, more could go wrong than may go well. The elite may yet wager that an advancing opposition means, for them, the loss of everything. That may be enough to guarantee supporting Lukashenko, come what may.

Russian backing might aid Lukashenko, or its lack might leave him a little less secure, but the elites in Belarus are the essential element, others suggested. To conciliate them is essential, or in fear of what a new opposition politics may resemble, they will support the old order in fear of the new.

The opposition has one great rhetorical strength. It has no prospectus, nor any particular, and possibly compromised, candidate whose arrival in office is a goal of protests. It is not a front for a particular interest or egoist. All its leaders claim to want is fresh elections. But this does present its own problems.

Here’s the mainstream view of Belarusian politics, at least in Europe: the parties in office survive to support the regime as it exists. They are the only operations which are capable, as things stand, of fighting elections. In any hastily organised legislative elections carried out to appease protests, reformists and oppositionists risk loss for the sake of fulfilling their demands. The opposition’s demands are limited for sadly pragmatic reasons, I was told.

Those of a more optimistic view take a different tack. If presidential elections were run today, it is likely Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, or an oppositionist of her stature, would win. And it is not beyond possibility that the opposition’s natural divisions, rather than undermining its efforts, signal something else: that there is in Belarus the makings of a vibrant multi-party democracy, ready and waiting to take shape. But all this is theory while the present regime remains.

Here we approach the rub, and where the idea that wilful Western determination to see Lukashenko replaced, which I expressed earlier in the month, conflicts with received opinion. To many minds, it simply cannot work.

The analyst class largely believes that Russia has more to lose in Belarus than the West might gain. Lukashenko will more likely go through Russia holding back than anyone else stepping in. Russia must be prevented from doing so, and mollified if necessary.

We must recall, as Russia’s leaders do, the spectre of the colour revolutions of this century which displaced many heads of the post-Soviet world. The Kremlin remembers the Maidan in Ukraine: and remembers its favoured leader fleeing the country, while Victoria Nuland, America’s Assistant Secretary of State, handed out sandwiches to the protesters in Kiev.

The analysts hold that, to avoid Russia picking up on the wrong signals and intervening decisively in order to derail any possible transition, gestures like ostentatiously calling Vladimir Putin to discuss the future of Belarus are needed. After all, some of them maintain that so far, Russia’s reaction to Belarus’ turmoil has been rather restrained.

Now, observers are welcome to make of these signs what they will. Kremlinology is not a new pursuit. There is discussion to be had. But in Belarus things are beginning to look rather far beyond conciliation. A point I made in early September and, I fear must repeat here, is this: in Belarus as in Venezuela, inertia has its own tragic power. A dictator clinging limpet-like to the organs of state is often harder to dislodge than many would otherwise imagine.

And in Venezuela and now in Belarus, the forces abetting inertia are the ones most able, and most delightedly willing, to mobilise violence against the opposition they see threaten all they have secured, and all that concession may cause them soon to lose. We may not know how best to help Belarus. But it would likely not hurt to look as if we might try.

The Critic, September 29, 2020

Robert Fisk: Correspondent or Storyteller?

Per many accounts, Robert Fisk, a journalist who died last week, was a notably courteous man. Since his death I have spoken to a number who met him and knew his work. They describe a journalist who spoke politely to crowds after events and at signings for his books, and who reacted to praise and attention with becoming satisfaction and pleasure.

When they asked to shake his hand after a lecture, he held theirs and smiled. When encountered in hotel lobbies, he was happy to talk and to share a story or two. Many of them gave his books as gifts. They offered his works like Pity the Nation, on Lebanon’s civil war, up as primers to the uninitiated.

This is a view of Fisk often found in the accounts of other correspondents – shared most obviously by the more dilletante among them. The humourist P. J. O’Rourke, in the acknowledgements of Holidays in Hell, his collection of comic conflict journalism, counts Fisk among the coterie of the international press corps whose members supplied him with free drinks and frequently ‘saved [his] ass from jail or worse’.

‘What I tell my readers in my stories’, O’Rourke writes, ‘is nothing but what members of the press tell each other around the bar at 10:00 p.m.’

Let’s leave the bar behind and return to the first group – once admirers, they are now disaffected. They relate that their appreciation for Fisk did not last to the end of his life. Some had doubts bed in a while ago. One longer-term critic responded to news of Fisk’s death with the caption ‘author of fiction on Middle East themes dies’.

But for the last ten years, one story alone determined the view of Fisk. Just under a decade ago, born of vicious repression from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s civil war began.

Fisk took the regime’s side, and he did so fulsomely. He embedded with the Syrian army and praised its (often under-evidenced) effectiveness. When he travelled to the sites of massacres, even when he could not out-and-out deny that the regime had a hand in events, Fisk attempted to blame everyone else for those murders he could not ignore.

Treading the ground in Daraya where mass killing had followed regime fighters taking the town by storm, Fisk attributed the carnage to the inevitable consequence of a prisoner swap gone wrong, never accusing the forces of the state of shedding a single drop of blood. He humoured every excuse the regime and its allies offered as to why they could not have committed the chemical atrocities which all fair-minded international observers imputed to their forces.

Even Fisk’s garrulousness in lobbies becomes a little harder to take when seen in its full context. A friend relates how he ran into Fisk in a Damascus hotel in 2018, just after the chemical attack in Douma was followed by international retaliation. Fisk seemed subdued, ‘like he was waiting for someone’.

‘I remember he was reading a very obscure science textbook. He seemed quite glad some members of our group approached him; he lapped you the attention and told a couple of anecdotes. He was friendly, if a little haughty. I remember him telling a member of the group I was with he would only pose for a photo if they promised not to post it on social media.’ This secrecy and the science textbook appear to have been related.

‘I later read’, my friend resumes, ‘that Fisk had visited the site of the chemical weapons attack and written a piece casting doubt on the widely accepted narrative’. Fisk wondered if the deaths and the distress may have been caused by a ‘dust storm’ rather than a chemical cannister.

‘He was clearly there at the invitation of the Assad regime, bought in to launder the aftermath of a chemical attack’, my friend said; ‘and that was exactly the job he did.’

Much of this passed Fisk’s editors and colleagues by, as did criticism of his methods. The International Crisis Group’s Hugh Pope, upon encountering Fisk in Turkey, found that what a colleague of his called ‘Fiskery’ often meant embroidery.

‘For a few dazzling reporters, [the colleague] explained, the essential thrust of the story … might well be true … [or] illustrate a higher truth. But the details, quotes, witnesses, and even whole battles could be embellished to make the story fly, preferably onto the front page’.  Pope decided to check up on Fisk’s write-up of an especially exciting incident. He was informed by those he spoke to that ‘Fisk’s reporting has no basis in fact’.

This was not a unique observation. Fisk’s novelistic storytelling ensured that his editors continued to value his contributions beyond their accuracy, and his personal courtesy bound them to him. His documented propensity for distortion and factual errors, in his books and his journalism, never appeared to occasion a tighter editorial rein.

There were always reasons for this – some justifiable, others not. Fisk was a seeming specialist in a sea of generalists, who – one can only guess – thought they could not presume to correct him. But beyond this came a degree of deference that seems anachronistic. The first series of death notices erroneously maintained that Fisk was fluent in Arabic, despite evidence the man himself continually produced to the contrary. So beholden were some non-Arabists to the image of Fisk as their guide to an unfamiliar world.

Despite dying suddenly and younger than many of his contemporaries, Fisk undoubtedly outlived his era. His was a time of intrepid Westerners interpreting the east for domestic audiences in florid prose, where eccentric correspondents were occasionally at risk of charmingly going native. None of the glamour of this style survives in the age of Google and real-time corrections; nor now many Middle Easterners speak good English and have as much access as any son of Maidstone to the international press.

Fisk’s skill was in vivid, prejudicial writing and a kind of old-world charm which won him friends among those who counted – and suggested to them that he was too good a chap to lie to their faces. What a pity, for those who believed in him, that they were wrong.

The Critic, November 11, 2020

Jan Morris: Life as a Vivid Dream

Jan Morris, who died last week at the age of 94, may have lived one of the more various and accomplished lives on record. She was, in turn, a soldier, a newspaper correspondent with a number of scoops to her name, a fine memoirist, and a writer of books whose scope encompassed the world.

Any dutiful obituarist must also note something else which happened fifty years ago. It is likely for ever to feature in the first paragraph, if not the first line, of everything written about Morris. She was born a man, named James by her parents, and underwent what her publishers and profilers term ‘a change of sexual role’ in 1972 – back when such a thing was a rarity and rather dangerous to accomplish.

I hope to leave that subject aside for a moment while contemplating her place in letters. By the end of her long life, Morris had become something of a national treasure and an institution. Her quixotic obsessions – a personal, mythical interpretation of the Welsh side of her family and her home in that country, and the late First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher – became the subject of stories shared by friends, editors and admirers.

She gave wise and funny interviews to the papers about savouring mussels without dignity and why whether what one is doing is kind ought, in a good world, to be the modest test applied to action.

Other profilers note her long companionship with Elizabeth (née Tuckniss) – first through marriage, then a legally-divorced close friendship, and finally a civil partnership, with the ceremony witnessed by a local couple who afterwards invited the two for tea. Elizabeth survives Jan, but a visiting journalist or two was shown the headstone which is planned for both of them. They will lie on a Welsh island they owned in the Dwyfor, a river that runs by their home. The stone reads: ‘Here lie two friends, at the end of one life’.

These are beautiful stories, but they should not retroactively colour in fully our impressions of Morris. Nor should a sense – repeated in some otherwise careful obituaries – that as ‘James’, Morris’s ‘written voice always sounded certain’. Whereas as Jan, her writing grew more introspective and aware of the ways that time and tide conspire to decay the facades of men as much as they do institutions and places. This was exhibited notably in her Pax Britannica trilogy, which chronicled Britain’s imperial decline.

Reading her early books as James dispels that view. Coronation Everest includes Morris’s 1953 ascent of the world’s highest mountain alongside Hunt, Hillary and Norgay. Morris joins in their boisterous camaraderie and delights in some of the physicality of being young and fit and at the summit of the world. But it also features the young journalist’s constant anxiety about whether he will be able to break the story successfully – without falling victim to another’s subterfuge or something he, in his flawed way, might overlook.

Sultan in Oman establishes its titular character as a flinty, far-sighted archetype of an Arab ruler. Morris follows the new man and his emerging oil economy in the first expedition across territory the sultan claims as his. All present expect a fight, but the tone of the journey is closer to a light farce. When the sultan descends an oil derrick in newly conquered land, with force at his back and ‘one hand on his dagger (but not, I think, with a view to any impending violence)’, he is immediately surrounded by courtiers and serfs and driven away. After all this display, Morris ‘reflected that, after all, there might not be any oil beneath the sands of Jebel Fahud. There are such places’.

Coast to Coast, a book of America, is a series of joyous first impressions. But among them, Morris carefully notes the snobbery and racial animus at the heart of the Southern gentlemen; and the efforts many formerly slave-owning families made, in their crumbling plantation houses, to establish false aristocratic genealogies and to pretend, with their stilted, hostile manners, that they leant in the direction of gentility.

And in Conundrum, Morris’ memoir of changing sex, all is uncertain and between two worlds, except the desire to live as female. That is a feeling established from the very first page and the age of three. Even so, in Casablanca for surgery, there is a moment where, movingly, Morris confronts the change that is about to befall her male self.

Drugged, awaiting anaesthetic sleep and an operation in a foreign city, Morris drags herself from the table and stands before a mirror. There, she surveys the body she is soon to lose. She says goodbye to it, and to her unresolved life in that form. What follows the procedure, however, is not sorrow but exhilaration. Morris feels desire to carry on as before, but also to experience those hopes that this change of role allows to become real.

For all of these books, and those that followed them, the hard distinctions which divide ‘places’ and ‘people’ in travel writing did not exist. Morris did not much like the idea that her works were travel books, anyway. For her, everything folded together into a dreamlike journey from reality into subjective experience, vivid and pure.

This is what allowed her writing on cities like Oxford and Venice to be both definitive and personal. It is how an exploration of the acquisition of power in Oman could include delirious passages, taken almost from Kipling, of encountering isolated tribes and their diverging traditions, forms of dress, and differing extents of exposure to the mechanised world.

It is how a career of writing quite idiosyncratically, on subjects some dismissed as trivial or purely indulgent, won not only the admiration granted to stylists and technicians, but an increasing public fondness which was not generated by critical approval or temporary acclaim.

Morris wrote over forty books, and miscellaneous collections of her works populate many otherwise divergent shelves. Many readers have expressed not only their sadness at the loss of someone of such skill, whose works they enjoyed, but also the close of a perspective that was transforming. It is the end of one writer’s life as a vivid dream.

The Critic, November 23, 2020

John le Carré: Cultivation by Choice

Many already miss John le Carré and their sadness at his loss will be expressed variously and at length. One aspect of all this is the loss of a voice – an admired voice in prose and in speech.

To extend that metaphor, let us discuss the character of le Carré’s prose. Even when knowingly ironic and witty (perhaps bitingly so, as in The Looking Glass War), its tone is experienced and professional. Rarely – even in his less controlled Naïve and Sentimental Lover – was this writinghistrionic or emotional.

The effect of all this adds not only a documentary feel to events (which could be artfully distorted for dramatic reasons), but also a sonorousness and solidity to the assumptions underpinning the world under description. The reader takes le Carré’s word.

This had an effect of quiet assurance. When le Carré became didactic, as he certainly was wont to be in this century, his voice afforded him more gravity. When he feuded, as some participants in those feuds have affectionately remembered, his tone if not his words elevated these petty squabbles into happenings which almost resembled events.

Many Americans see le Carré as an extension of their broader view of England – never ‘Britain’ – in the Cold War. A third-rate power whose people still boarded BOAC aircraft to former possessions, but whose prominence and presence was built less upon reality than appearances. A country of espionage writers as much as it was a place of spies. Where spymasters and traitors probably went to the same Oxford college, or drank in the same Cambridge pubs, and taught in prep schools alongside each other when separately falling upon hard times.

Some of le Carré’s characters possess those traits. Many are well educated and speak with the easy affect of those brought up to rule the world. Disappointed by the world they find or not, they exude an attitude difficult to produce in any other way. 

When debonair Bill Haydon speaks, many think, so speaks le Carré. And instinctually, that may be correct. Haydon hates America so instinctively, so compellingly, because le Carré shared that prejudice. Their cadences are in effect the same. Le Carré’s written voice as well as his speaking voice bespoke the same cultivation and the same bigotry.

But nevertheless, le Carré and Haydon are not equivalent. Le Carré’s childhood was strange and strained. Although he was educated at prep and independent school (acrid satire of which populates A Murder of Quality) and a suite of European universities, le Carré’s father was a swindler and le Carré’s early life did not proceed with ease. Insofar as he acquired a voice of old-fashioned English authority, it was through self-cultivation, self-creation.

A good deal has been said about the character of George Smiley and his influences. The rumpled appearance giving way to cunning, and the coldness of iron. All this has been written. More interesting, perhaps, is the discussion of Smiley as a symbol of self-generation. Le Carré spoke recently about the joys of learning German, an extract was published in the Guardian. This when le Carré was as a visible an example as possible of a proud European, something newly en vogue of late – one of the few with the intellectual heft to justify that self-image.

Here is what he writes about his journey into a language he loved. ‘I discovered that the language fitted me. It fitted my tongue. It pleased my Nordic ear. I also loved the idea that these poems and this language that I was learning were mine and no one else’s, because German wasn’t a popular subject and very few of my schoolmates knew a word of it beyond [what] they learned from propaganda war movies. But … I knew better. And when I decided I couldn’t stand my English public school for one more day, it was the German language that provided me with my bolt-hole.’

And here is Smiley – a man possessing similar secret knowledge, who cultivated himself into the unsuccessful husband of Lady Ann: ‘Smiley … emerged from his unimpressive school and lumbered blinking into the murky cloisters of his unimpressive Oxford College, he had dreamt of Fellowships and a life devoted to the literary obscurities of seventeenth-century Germany’. And later, teaching in Germany before the war, he resented the marching that the state commanded of its young; ‘the way in which the Faculty had tampered with his subject – his beloved German literature’; and finally the burning of its books.

So intellectually secure is Smiley, if not socially, that he is capable of using it for the self-amusement and distraction. In The Looking Glass War, he would rather enquire, of someone desperate for his help, whether they studied his particular era of German literature; and then why, when informed in the negative, it was unjustly classified as a ‘special subject’ rather than being taught compulsorily.

The same is perhaps true of le Carré himself. A man of supreme intellectual confidence, built upon autodidacticism and the kind of professional experience others are curious enough to read about in fiction, but could never approach in life. A man of English impulses, but continental interests. A man admitted to the reaches of English society through merit and bearing rather than birth, just as it collapsed permanently around him – never to be remade.

The Critic, December 15, 2020

The Soleimani Assassination and the Arab Spring

You may have read some of the contemplative and mournful journalism produced to mark ten years since the beginning of the Arab Spring. All the writing prompted by this anniversary assumed, as if by default, a funereal tone. 

How sad it is, so many wrote, that all that protesting, all that passion, came to nothing. ‘The region’, as these analyses are wont to call it, is not more free, nor more liberal, than before. In fact – cruel irony! – very little has changed for all its decade of tumult. After years of morally compromised warfare, the dead are martyrs but not heroes, and the villains of the piece are in power.

 This view is not unjustified. We have lost so many and so much in the past ten years. Figures of Syrian civil society like Raed Fares are routinely murdered amid the country’s unending conflict. Many dictators did not fall; or, for those who did, comparative rulers or chaos took their place. The past decade saw the rise and not-quite defeat of ISIS, even if the crushing of its territorial ‘caliphate’ and the killing of its ‘caliph’ give some consolation. 

There is one exception to this grim accounting, however, and it is integrally connected to the forces which helped cynically to undermine, and brutally to crush, many protest movements across the Middle East over the past ten years. This action – just over a year ago – was undertaken against the direction of travel in global policy. It was a complete surprise. It was accompanied, contra the predictions of innumerable experts, by little significant cost. And its target got what he deserved.

When, in January last year, the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, and one of his militia-leader operatives, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, many Iraqis and Syrians saw it as a New Year’s gift – a gift that was difficult to believe. 

The man who had orchestrated the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s tyranny in Syria, the capture of the Iraqi state, and the murder of hundreds of protestors in Iraq’s streets, was dead. The symbol of an Iranian defiance built upon terrorist violence and militia rule was gone. Many felt jubilant, publicly and privately – but this delight was tempered with incredulity.

A retrospective essay by Rasha al-Aqeedi in Newlines magazine distils the gulf between Soleimani the symbol and Soleimani the body. 

Soleimani had portrayed himself not only as a powerful hidden hand – a recent biography is titled for his nickname, ‘shadow commander’ – but also as an increasingly overt rather than a covert actor. He swanned around Middle Eastern battlefields, popping up at various Syrian offensives, and conducted shuttle diplomacy across Iraq. He posed for selfies with combatants so regularly that he may have had a quota. Soleimani was on his way to meet, and likely to direct, Iraq’s then prime minister when he was killed.

Like Saddam Hussain and other tyrants and terrorists of the recent past, Soleimani’s globetrotting built an image of immortality which was burnished by every death he caused without consequence. ‘[T]hose with no personal experience living at the mercy of tyranny struggle to comprehend the perception of invincibility that some leaders create in the minds of those over whom they rule’, al-Aqeedi writes. 

‘Men like Soleimani have to be removed before the agony and destruction they’ve caused can ever be righted.’

The agony caused by the work of Soleimani’s life is unlikely to be wholly undone. The militias he ran still hold Iraq hostage. The Syrian regime still barely sustains its own survival, bolstered by foreign fighters, the wretched of the earth, whose massed transport into Syria was first administered by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Those dead because of his efforts cannot be resurrected; and those who will die at the hands of the forces he led and empowered cannot, in the near term, be saved.

But neither did Iranian vengeance, of the kind both predicted and promised, live up to all that much. Soleimani’s networks of proxies are good at gunning down Iraqi protestors and massacring Syrian civilians, but not at avenging the deaths of their leaders.

One year on, Iran has attempted to maintain Soleimani’s mythos with inconsistent effects. ‘His persona encapsulated an Iran that was no longer in retreat, no longer bowing to the whims of foreign powers, and able to be, by force of will alone, the master of its own destiny. He was killed because he was important. He was killed because Iran was important’, as Afshon Ostovar has it.

The lack of real response to the assassination, by contrast, indicates either Iran’s unimportance or its lack of capability.

As much as Soleimani helped to deny the Arab Spring its hoped-for decade, his death too has significance. Power creates false impressions that deaths tend to put right. Those capable of and willing to order the deaths of others can seem untouchable. But Soleimani was not. 

And the story of his death illuminated a story of his life that was previously harder to tell. He survived to kill yet more because of American hesitance. When that expired, so did he. So it could still be with all those tyrants that the last ten years spared.

The Critic, January 12, 2021

Sheldon Adelson in Two States

A few people believe that they are able, by force of personality or cultivated skill, to dominate culture and politics in both Israel and America. They are, almost all of them, wrong.

Benjamin Netanyahu thinks that his time in America, his fluent English, and his banging the drum for counter-terrorism decades ago afford him a special place in American politics. He delivers many speeches in English with the sole intention of influencing American opinion. Yet all of this, and his ten years in office, go only so far. He is a partisan figure, often invited to speak, but never influential among the public, being instead an honoured foreign voice among the Republican party congregation.

Donald Trump is another. He believes they love him in Israel because he has so nakedly favoured the cause of their country, and its long-serving prime minister. Trump is probably assured by Netanyahu that he is popular in Israel as he believes himself to be. That all the ‘great deals’ Arab and Muslim countries have recently signed with Israel do not represent a delayed reckoning with reality, but are instead understood to be the result of his munificence.

He thinks Israelis, and American Jews (who are not too different, to his mind) should be his greatest advocates and fiercest defenders. He believes they owe him.

But politics goes only so far in attaining influence in, and possibly over, a society or two. Sometimes money is a better emissary. One man who could claim great influence in both Israel and America died this week. His name was Sheldon Adelson, and his money permeated both countries and shaped each of their polities. Both Netanyahu and Trump owed him very much. It is possible that without him, neither of them would have risen to hold office at all.

Adelson’s rise to fabulous wealth need not detain us so much as what he did with his money, acquired at least initially through running casinos. Anyone truly interested ought to read the gushing tributes published in several of the newspapers he owned. They are all, believe me, more than sufficiently thorough.

Adelson was more than a casino magnate. Israel Hayom, which Adelson founded in 2007, is its country’s most widely read newspaper. It is daily and it is free. A better platform for the promotion of anything – an idea, a party, or a single man – could hardly be devised, even in an age where newsprint commands less automatic attention.

Adelson put Hayom largely at the disposal of Netanyahu and the promotion of his policies. So widely is this perceived that many call Hayom ’Bibiton‘: ‘the newspaper of Bibi’, Netanyahu’s nickname. Its editorials support the prime minister as determinedly as they supported him in opposition. The paper attacks Netanyahu’s opponents on the left as vigorously as those on the right.

The leaders of other parties on the Israeli right, who would, in a different world, be candidates for the paper’s endorsement, frequently gnash their teeth about its adherence to the battered standard of one man.

They noted that Adelson funded Hayom, which always ran at a loss, to the tune of $200 million. Its approach depressed the value of advertising nation-wide, knocking the profitability out of the market entirely. This largesse of Adelson’s proved quite a war chest in the battle for hearts and minds, and a powerful asset come election-time in a country where so many parties jostle for popular support.

In America, meanwhile, Adelson’s money went hither and yon, with the man himself ceasing to support some Jewish-American groups purportedly because of their stances on Palestine were too soft for his liking. In national rather than international politics, Adelson was a steadfast Republican, the largest individual donor to Donald Trump – a less successful operator of casinos than he – in 2016. Adelson, after initial reluctance, supported Trump over his more establishment Republican opponents.

Trump reciprocated this support by giving Adelson’s wife, Miriam, a large-scale political donor in her own right, the Presidential Medal of Freedom; and by moving America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Adelson couple were guests of honour at its dedication. They purchased the policy, so it was only fair they could secure good seats for its unveiling.

In Adelson, a man born in Boston who lived much of the year in Nevada, Trump believed he had a true conduit to Israeli politics and Israeli public opinion. No doubt the money helped.

Much of the donor class rejected Trump wholesale. Adelson, by not doing so, was able to catch the ear and the imagination of this uniquely unfocused president, and to ensure his own pet issues were advanced.

In Israel meanwhile, it is difficult to imagine the present state of affairs existing at all without Adelson’s influence. Israel would likely not have begun its fourth election campaign in three years but for his commitment to the increasingly laboured survival of one man, whose indictment for corruption and increasingly comfortable perch in power may have tempted his party to ditch his for a fresher and less blemished face.

‘History will remember Sheldon Adelson as the man who did more than nearly anyone else to corrupt and debase two political systems, Israel’s and America’s’, tweeted Anshel Pfeffer, of the left-wing Haaretz newspaper.

Adelson channelled money made in gambling into politics. Many contend that he fixed politics in Israel to the extent that one party now plays with house odds. His money, and his politics, reside now with Miriam. She seems more than ready to continue the high-stakes political game they played together.

The Critic, January 13, 2021

Recognising the Inevitable

Political activism in Hong Kong has hardly been a carefree pursuit since the handover. But things have become rather less calm in recent months. A few days ago, the Chinese-imposed executive mounted a mass arrest of the same democratic politicians whose successes in recent elections so embarrassed Beijing. They were detained under the national security law that was finally enacted in June, which attracted great protest and condemnation due in no small part to the capacity it contained for actions just like this.

A few weeks ago, China arrested a group of young activists under similar pretences; and a little before that, in September, it had the advocate of democracy Joshua Wong – a famous face of protest – detained for an act of unlawful assembly apparently perpetrated the year before.

In Britain this week, meanwhile, a different story of Chinese significance has prompted the creation of new policy. The foreign secretary Dominic Raab spoke on Tuesday about the situation in Xinjiang, where evidence mounts daily that China has not only imprisoned millions of members of the Uighur minority, but also put the inhabitants of its camps to work, servicing the wheels of its economy with what is in effect slave labour.

This has been known for a while – both the camps and their contents. The reporting which Raab referenced – of mass surveillance, large-scale imprisonment for political crimes, the pervasive undermining of Uighur birth rates – piles up, and has done so for several years. But on forced labour specifically, there is also quite a backlog.

An extensive report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in early 2020 used satellite imagery and local sources to identify the camps, and to describe the journeys of their residents into factories and onto assembly lines. It charts how Uighurs ended up sewing Nike shoes in the Taekwang factory complex in Shandong province, with others working on factory floors producing products in Zhengzhou for Apple and parts of cars for Volkswagen.

Naturally these people work for little pay and move only at the will of the state, not their own. Their workdays over, they are prompted, at their captors’ request, to sing patriotic songs.

Enough of this stuff is subcontracted to make it deniable. The companies named above, and in the report, do their best to claim that they have investigated and found no evidence of forced labour in their own supply chains. But such deniability collapses in the face of more reporting.

Not only have Chinese authorities spoken obliquely about moving around “surplus labour’ to serve in far-flung factories; now it seems the authorities in Xinjiang have begun building factories within the camps themselves.

Raab’s initiative intends to prevent British firms from doing business, and purchasing material, from firms which are a part of this system. It’s upstanding stuff, quite in keeping with any image of a “Global Britain’. But there are other lessons to draw from recent events.

Gathering momentum late last year, there was a flurry of commentary pressing the United States to ditch the one China policy and recognise Taiwan as an independent and autonomous state apart from the mainland. This was prompted by two things, widely perceived.

The first was China’s total domination of Hong Kong, both legal and practical – something contrary to the Sino-British Joint Declaration and every assurance made since the handover. The second was a series of portents which suggested a coming use of force.

China increased both its military activity and its issuing of threats against Taiwan. Many organs of the Chinese state spoke of a coming struggle between the two countries. And since Xi Jinping ascended to leadership eight years ago, he has spoken of solving the Taiwan issue, presumably by force, within his time in power. This marks an escalation of even that understanding.

As China massed troops across the Formosa Strait, something akin to panic began to take hold in western policy circles. With the world knocked sideways by a pandemic – and hardly helped by China in the process – and an American election upcoming which would likely be disputed, some saw great danger in the near term. Between November and January, a few went so far as to predict, if the American election could not be neatly decided and the world were otherwise occupied, China could simply cross the strait and begin to invade.

Naturally, this did not quite occur.

As fanciful as all these stories of landings which never occurred can seem, the problem this represents was hardly allayed by the progress of the American election; and nor will it disappear with a new man in the White House. All those threats remain. The military build-up has hardly ceased. And the problem of Taiwan, in China’s eyes, has hardly diminished.

Other things have hardly taken the country’s mind of future conflict. It can subjugate an errant province in Hong Kong and stock factories the country over with involuntary labour, all while planning to conquer a neighbouring island – especially one which is not recognised by the United Nations.

As the coercive hold of the Chinese state on Hong Kong becomes irreversible, there is one lesson among many that it will pay to learn.

It is that China is not bound by ties of convention or obligation. Those things which might be hoped to constrain a budding imperial power do not hold China back. In fact, they are worth less than the paper they are printed on and are worthless when taken to heart.

Disentangling British industry from China’s system of impressed labour is one thing. But recognising the inevitable requires more than making statements to that effect in the House of Commons.

The Critic, January 14, 2021

Syria’s War, on Drugs

If modern war often seems like a racket, that may be because in some respects it is. Wars are now rarely fought between states. Instead, parties to contemporary conflicts are often scattered armed groups, operating without the constitutions and defined rules of engagement which bind the militaries of nations.

These groups are often concentrated around a small area, or take root among members of an individual ethnicity or those professing a particular creed. The leaders of these groups often behave like brigands and mafiosos, demanding protection money and extorting those in the land under their control, meanwhile scheming to overtake territory of other, competing warlords.

Looting is possibly more pervasive – and certainly less often punished – in current civil conflicts than it was in the era when soldiers of nation-states lived off the land and theft while on campaign, before the invention of logistics corps and meals ready to eat.

Even the proxies of regional powers, some of them well-funded, resort to larceny to supplement their salaries, as do the soldiers of weak states, like the regime of Bashar al-Assad. When the Assad regime takes a town, a Syrian joke goes, everything which has not been flattened by Russian bombs is likely to be ‘liberated’ in subsequent mass looting. The Syrian Arab Army is more effective against a room full of white goods than it is against an Islamic State advance.

But theft is only one crime armed groups engage in to enrich themselves. Another is yet more comparable to the modus operandi of a mafia: the trafficking of narcotics.

This thread has been brought out in the debate surrounding the origins of a record-breaking shipment of amphetamines which was seized by Italian authorities en route from Syria last year. Italian police seized up to 14 tons of amphetamines, 84 million tablets, estimated to have a rough value of a $1 billion. Ever since this seizure, the exact ownership of the shipment and its intended purpose has been up for grabs.

But first, a little context. The extent to which Syria’s war is powered by the cheap stimulant Captagon is difficult to overstate, although some have certainly tried. Amphetamines have seen extensive use in war and, like its predecessors, Captagon keeps fighters active long beyond the limits of ordinary endurance.

In a war in which many groups mount suicide attacks, the drug grimly prompts soldiers to carry on fighting beyond receiving injuries from which they will not recover. And, in the same way that intoxicants often find new popularity amid the hopelessness of warfare, Captagon is also widely used for recreation in Syria as well as across the Middle East.

The shipment intercepted by Italian authorities is one of the largest ever seized. And Italy, after common fashion, initially suggested it was down to ISIS – something authorities are keen to suspect and to allege. ISIS fighters made use of the drug themselves and have operated lucrative side-lines in the theft of antiquities which requires international smuggling and sale.

But the claim that this was an ISIS drug shipment now seems unrealistic. Indeed, the attribution of all this to the Islamic State was questioned at the time by Daniele Raineri, an Italian journalist, and Sam Dagher, the author of Assad or We Burn the Country: a definitive history of Syria’s war. Italian authorities have since minimised the ISIS connection.

The three ships from which the tablets were seized came from Latakia, a port controlled the by the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Tessa Fox, writing for Foreign Policy, intimates that this necessitates a regime connection to the shipment.

It seems far more likely that this shipment was the product of deals made between Hezbollah, the regime, other pro-regime militias, and the Naples mafia. This connection may at first seem strange, but it is hardly as unusual as it sounds. When one wishes to sell drugs from a warzone, the expertise of organised crime marries almost perfectly to those of a sectarian militia or a rogue state short of cash.

Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies have a long history of drug-trafficking as a way to earn revenue; something Hezbollah unconvincingly denies on the grounds of religious prohibition. But American treasury officials and analysts contend that it uses the proceeds of criminal activity across the world – including the sale of drugs – to buy illegal weapons for its fighters and mount foreign operations.

There is evidence to suggest that Hezbollah was producing drugs in Lebanon until recently, and that this was something the regime encouraged. Now, the production and sale of Captagon and other drugs could prove to be crutches for Syria’s shattered economy, and selling amphetamines abroad could increase revenues further.

The situation in Syria is bad: many of those fighting are hooked on drugs which make them more prone to violence and less willing to give up when fighting starts. The drug trade undermines the rule of law, empowers militia leaders, and shifts money away from a legitimate economy. Even interrupting and impounding shipments seems futile; the drug trade continues – as surely enriching the mafiosos and aiding the warlords as would a descent into further conflict.

The Critic, January 19, 2021

The Return of Navalny

As Alexei Navalny, a Russian opposition leader, travelled back to his home country on a plane filled with media this week, everyone knew what was going to happen next. It had been extensively trailed in advance.

The second Navalny landed, he was going to be arrested by Russia’s security state, and likely carted off into custody, remanded on any number of charges which the state has levied against him and held in reserve, for any opportune moment such as this.

This is of course what happened, and after saying goodbye to his wife – a resolute woman, who told the press that just as she and he were not worried, nor should any of his supporters be – Navalny briefly disappeared. That disappearance was roundly and ineffectually condemned by all right-thinking countries. He later returned to view in a Russian jail, in which a court had been rather rapidly assembled and convened, all the better to charge him with one of these confected crimes and subsequently to imprison him for thirty days.

The press’s demand for drama, and Navalny’s own predictions, were satisfied. He suggested that his supporters might like to take to the streets to protest against his unjust imprisonment.

One question is quite reasonably asked after this performance. What exactly is Navalny playing at? Most observers know why Navalny was in Berlin rather than Russia in the first place. He is lucky to be alive. Last August, as he travelled from Siberia, Navalny was poisoned with what German authorities later identified as a Soviet-era nerve agent.

He was filmed crying out in pain on an aircraft and came close to death, but the pilot’s diverting the flight to Omsk saved him from that fate. It is now clear that far from sending a message, as some initially hypothesized it was intended to do, this attack was meant to solve a problem. Navalny was not meant to survive. The Russian authorities tasked with poisoning him were so determined to do this job that they tried to poison him again.

We know this and more about the poisoning because Navalny cooperated with a number of news outlets and the independent investigators of Bellingcat, not only to create a forensic timeline of events, but also to entrap one of the purported assassins into revealing details of the operation in a highly entertaining interview since broadcast on YouTube. CNN, a partner in the investigation, even doorstepped one of the would-be assassins.

So far, so fiasco. Par for the course, perhaps, of any oppositionist with a skill at enlisting the foreign press, and making the most out of whatever is thrown at him to help his cause. But looking a little closer is instructive. Navalny is not just an agitator or a political campaigner, and nor is he something the Kremlin can use to its own ends – as has been a consistent charge thrown his way by other oppositionists and comfortable western observers.

Instead, he is something different, a man entirely given over to his cause and his politics, a man of baffling and frightening intensity.

The charge that Navalny is not the sort of ideal opposition figure worthy of support from the west has deep roots, and has been echoed recently.

It comes from Navalny’s former activism, from close to fifteen years ago, when he was an agitator in the purest sense of the word – a man railing at life in his country and all its discontentment. He used vulgar language, he spoke without focus, and he endorsed a number of parties and positions in 2006 which seem decidedly on the wrong side of ‘nationalism’.

The Atlantic quoted him in 2013 talking about the puppet governments supported by Moscow in the autonomous republics in the Russian caucuses. ‘We know that there are girls there whose life’s ambition is not about being wrapped up in a burqa and having 25 children, but about living a decent life like humans. There are young people who want to study and work – and their ideal of life is not a Porsche Cayenne and a golden gun’. Vulgar this may be, but it is one way to refer to Chechnya under Ramzan Kadyrov.

In any case, the Navalny in operation now is less a candidate with a defined set of goals for policy than an individual operating outside of normal politics. Navalny was banned from standing in the 2018 presidential election, so he does not seek elected office. He has established a political operation which is less a party than a working group designed to assist individual campaigns. Some of the candidates he has backed won small-scale successes in previous local elections. But this is not a foundation upon which Navalny could build a government.

Instead he operates as a figurehead to a less tangible permanent campaign, which includes the posting of stinging videos on YouTube exposing government corruption that gain millions of views apiece, as well as other political interventions.

But most pressingly, Navalny’s focus is not electoral politics, but the fight itself. When in Berlin, recovering from two attempts on his life, Navalny roundly told all who would ask that he would return to Russia. He knew that to be in the game, he had to be in the country. He said he was prepared to take whatever pain and threat his return would elicit. He believes that more opposition figures will be poisoned.

When Navalny was first taken deathly ill, I detected a hint of suspicion among more well-heeled observers of Russian politics, people who consider themselves too sophisticated to be taken in by this rough man with an unwelcome past. Some suggested, in the fashion we have seen before, that Navalny could not have been poisoned by the state because he was its creature, a cartoon oppositionist rather than a real one.

This was put to bed when the Russian state tried two times to murder him. And now another attitude predominates. Others – admittedly more prone to appreciate Navalny’s stances and more willing to see him succeed – told me that they felt terribly apprehensive to see him return to Russia. They just knew things were going to go badly for him once again. I doubt they will be proven wrong.

Again, they wondered – why does he do it? And the truth is there in his increasingly emotionless eyes. As much as Navalny believes in the work he is doing, he believes more strongly in the need for himself to be a participant in Russia’s political drama.

Many now wonder if he has a death wish, and that seems not unreasonable. But the Kremlin now knows that if he is attacked once again – this time successfully – or if his maltreatment inspires the protests and opposition he seeks to foment, Navalny will have got what he wants, either way.

The Critic, January 21, 2021

The Trump Administration’s Parting Blows

As you will likely have gleaned from other sources, Joe Biden is now the president of the United States. He has begun his time in office, as presidents are wont to do, by making a show of being busy and in charge. Biden spent the first few hours at his desk undoing all the work of his predecessor that could be undone by executive order.

Also significant are the final actions taken by those leaving power, something especially prevalent in the American system where departing administrations have several months before leaving office to prepare their Parthian shots.

The Trump administration did not depart from this tradition, with the former president issuing what has become a customary dose of executive clemency before vacating the scene.

Other last acts are of more significance in policy. The Trump years were uniquely unfocused and contained little in the way of strategy. Instead, what was done comprised a series of individual actions, often enacted on the basis of the president’s likes and dislikes, taking in his willingness to strike a pose. His final secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, made it his business to carry these gestures off and did so until circumstance forced him to leave office.

Trump’s and Pompeo’s final week contained a number of announcements and executive actions on this score which will have lasting effects.

In rough order of significance, Pompeo: designated the Houthis, a rebel faction in the Yemeni civil war, a terrorist organisation; released a carefully-worded document which alleged that the coronavirus escaped from a Chinese laboratory, the Wuhan Institute of Virology; and finally declared China’s persecution of the Uighurs a genocide – a distinction America has long refrained from applying to the Armenian genocide or the genocide of the Rohingyas in Burma.

Pompeo also made a song and dance of making relations between the United States and Taiwan – which America still does not recognise – a little firmer.

One can see how these actions largely follow the image the Trump administration sought to present: that of a tough government keen to punish America’s enemies – be they imperial rivals, like China, or militia opponents. They echo one of its least convincing poses: that it was an operation willing to name names when evil was done.

This also follows a final sprint in diplomacy, which included American recognition of Moroccan control over Western Sahara – something entirely out of step with years of American policy – and a number of last-gasp attempts to have Muslim countries treat with Israel. In this, Trump and Pompeo sought to bolster their otherwise patchy efforts at having Israel recognised and made rich; they wanted to reward these new friends.

There are two approaches one can take to judging these actions.

First, one must note the extent to which there is an ignoble history of outgoing administrations making things harder for their unwelcome successors. This is something the Trump people were always likely to indulge. The Clinton administration purportedly vandalised the White House and stole property before George W. Bush took power, including popping all the W keys out of the keyboards. And this effort from the Trump people could be seen as an attempt to gum up the works in the same way before Biden and his officials were able to assume power.

A few of these decisions will take some reversing, as the new administration has already said it will likely do with regard to Yemen. The Western Sahara decision, for example, is simply too perverse to commend, and will likely be ditched as soon as is practical. Many of Biden’s first actions in power followed the same tack, of course – including the signing of executive orders ending Trump’s travel bans and re-joining America to the Paris Agreement pertaining to climate change.

But some of these final actions may not be reversed and with good reason. Biden’s incoming secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said rather pointedly before congress that he agreed with Pompeo’s late decision that China was indeed committing genocide in Xinjiang.

It is not ideal that the world’s new imperial power is a genocidal one-party state – but it is reassuring that the Biden administration has recognised this fact.

Blinken ought to examine all the final actions of his predecessor with the same care. The state department document relating to the coronavirus and its origins, for example, does offer evidence in a specific and worrying direction, whatever the motives spurring its publication.

While China continues to lie and obfuscate about the origins of a pandemic that has killed millions and shaken the global economy, releasing what material the United States has of its own investigations can help to make up for this consistent and thoroughgoing deceit.

Similarly, designating the Houthis as terrorists may complicate the Biden administration’s path in Yemen and fulfil a long-standing Saudi aim, but it is not wholly without justification. The Houthis have repeatedly claimed responsibility for rocket attacks on Saudi cities and the industrial sites that power its economy. Either these claims are correct, in which case they meet the bar for terrorism, or they are lies to disguise Iranian involvement – something which deserves its own recognition and condemnation.

And in the case of Taiwan, Blinken should use the opportunity he now has with a congress largely united in opposition to Chinese domination: he should go further and recognise Taiwan as sovereign.

Some of these actions, especially the ones related to China, are good on their own terms and must be seen as such. Considering them wholly through the prism of an otherwise classless exit, and throwing them out reflexively, would diminish some of the good they might yet do. This is good the new president and his administration must seek to continue.

The Critic, January 23, 2021

Armin Laschet

As Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) elected its new leader last week, what comment there was in the English-language press largely consisted of noting how little comment the press had otherwise made.

Now that Armin Laschet has been elected, and seems likely, after this year’s elections, to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, the press has to make up its mind. In general, as exemplified by this summary from the New Stateman’s foreign editor Jeremy Cliffe, Laschet is held to stand for moderation and the pursuit of consensus. Maybe this would involve coalition with the Green party. This coalition-building and careful management is something Merkel’s defenders associated with her and her virtues.

‘No experiments’, Cliffe notes, has its own political cache in Germany as a slogan associated with Konrad Adenauer, a founder of the CDU. And it seems, according to this strain of commentary, that Laschet is willing to eschew the more dramatic pitches of his defeated opponents and plump for caution.

In foreign policy terms, what this means is even less discussed. Cliffe writes: ‘His foreign policy instincts, which are dovish on Russia and China, alarm some’ – and nothing else. The same for the whole anglophone media before Laschet won his election.

As strange as that was, this was also less than thoroughly covered in Germany itself. In Der Spiegel, the newspaper’s foreign editor, Mathieu von Rohr, wrote that in a leadership contest mainly consisting of domestic politics, ‘Laschet’s foreign policy positions, however, were rarely discussed and questioned’.

This is a shame, von Rohr argues, because Laschet’s foreign policy is of import. He writes that it is, to an extent worth debating, different from that of Merkel. And how ‘dovish’ Laschet really is must also be worth discussing.

One major obstacle to any portrayal of the CDU leader as a peacenik comes from Syria’s war. Like a number on the isolationist right, Laschet travelled on from non-interventionism into support for those Middle Eastern tyrants who so willingly make war on their own people.

Laschet spent some of his time in the last decade replying in English to Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry. Laschet accused the Americans of supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front (then an al-Qaeda franchise) against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This was never true and at that time existed mainly in the feverish swamps of propaganda produced by various compromised governments.

In another tweet, with Kerry tagged, Laschet responded to a Twitter user who had noted that the regime accounted for the majority of the war’s hundreds of thousands of casualties. Laschet countered with the untruth that these people were in fact killed by Syria’s rebels and Nusra, and the insinuation that the two of those things were the same.

Laschet also denied that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, instead attributing their employment to ISIS – something that was doubly unlikely. Although ISIS has used crude mustard gas and would gas more people if it could, it possesses neither the capacity to produce nerve agents nor the helicopters from which to drop them onto civilian heads.

Nor was ISIS present in East Ghouta, where the attack in question took place – and thus it could not have participated in a helicopter-less false flag operation to plant the gas, which Laschet possibly had in mind.

Since some of these remarks were made, Laschet has attempted to shrug them off. He had ‘never defended Bashar al-Assad in his entire life’, he told the tabloid BILD – something that was only true if one took the most charitable and least subtle view of everything he has said on the subject.

All of this culminates in Laschet’s repeated declarations that ‘the only solution for Syria is with Russia’. He said this even though Russia has been party to much of the worst of that war and has, rather than bringing peace, in fact helped the regime drag the conflict out.

Laschet also doubted that Russia had used chemical weapons in Salisbury – a view very few of his CDU colleagues shared. The German government joined the governments of Britain, France and the United States in condemning the attack and blaming Russia for it.

Although Laschet’s refusal to condemn Russia for things everyone else believes it has done fills many Germans of an interest in foreign affairs with concern, it is not entirely divorced – in spirit if not in letter – from the position of the current chancellor.

Merkel is a less blunt operator than Laschet, and she is better able to duck and weave around matters of condemnation, whereas Laschet blunders about. But she has also pursued a policy of ‘understanding’ Russia – which in effect means tolerating its worst excesses while occasionally withholding that toleration for tactical reasons. Merkel has pressed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a boon to Russia and Germany, in the teeth of American opposition.

And on China, a greater threat than Russia to democracy the world over, Merkel showed her teeth by personally intervening to secure a trade deal between China and the European Union, something celebrated, ironically enough, by Germany’s former defence minister, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. The deal includes caveats intended to diminish the possible effects Chinese concentration camps and impressed labour may have on intercontinental trade, but in practice hands China a strategic success and another pathway into Europe, and European wallets.

Merkel’s admiration for China, reported by many close to her who know her mind, has survived all talk of the prison camps and the dictatorship. In Laschet, China hopes to find another German leader prepared to do the same.

Laschet’s worldview is hardly unheard of, then, in the upper reaches of his party. Instead, it bears some similarity to Merkel’s. Germany is a disarmed country used to relying upon its economic might to win its battles. As China rises, and Russia rattles its sabre, the German attitude concerns getting as rich as possible in one’s own lifetime, and hoping that the grandchildren have as much ease learning Mandarin as Merkel’s generation did English.

But enforced isolation can do a body politic lasting harm, making a perverse virtue of seeing no one to protect and to help in all the world, and no threat from those who are prepared to be threatening. All the while seeking enrichment at the expense of all else. Laschet is a part of this culture, but he is yet more isolationist and more mercenary than the fifteen years of CDU policy which precedes him. Keine experimente he may promise, but perhaps also some small change for the worse.

The Critic, January 25, 2021

The Genocide Convention May Hinder Rather Than Help Victims

Each year we mark Holocaust Memorial Day, an anniversary that has increasingly become a rallying point against genocide in the abstract as well as in the specific. This year, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and a number of other faith and interfaith organisations used the occasion to decry China’s ongoing genocide against the Uighur minority, who have been confined in their millions in re-education-cum-work camps, forcibly sterilised, and impressed into a system of slave labour for which we have increasingly incontrovertible evidence.

Late last year, in a piece commemorating the anniversaries of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention, the chief rabbi wrote that, having reflected on the history of genocide against Jews, he felt impelled to condemn China’s contemporary genocide with special urgency.

The chief rabbi’s invocation of the Genocide Convention is pertinent. Given the scaffold of international treaties prohibiting and mandating action against it, there is reason to wonder why genocide is quite so common.

China is attempting to ‘Sinosise’ its non-Han population with ruthless determination. Only a few years ago, the Islamic State attempted to wipe a small esoteric religious minority, the Yezidis, from the face of the earth – first by driving them from their ancestral lands and sieging those it expelled on Mount Sinjar; and second by attempting to destroy Yezidi demographics through sexual slavery and mass rape. In Burma, the Rohingya have been expelled in their millions from their homes in Rakhine state by the military, with many Rohingya fleeing to Bangladesh; and those left behind have been placed either in concentration camps or in villages patrolled by soldiers.

ISIS’ genocide has been largely constrained by military defeat. But the other two are ongoing, and the Genocide Convention has hardly prevented the perpetrators from continuing their vicious work. I spoke to Ronan Lee, the author of Myanmar’s Rohingya Genocide, an upcoming book on the genocide in Burma. He told me, and writes in the book, that the convention’s formalism and precision of definition is not an unmixed blessing.

That the actions of the Burmese military approach the definition of genocide is largely uncontroversial – ditto what China does to its minorities. But legalism prevails. So does the myth that for the Genocide Convention to apply, a court must make a determination, formally, that genocide is being committed. This is a falsehood – and an unhelpful one.

Legalism does funny things to sovereign states. It means that instead of taking these crimes on their own terms, those minded to consider the convention feel they must also prove that Burma and China undertook these actions with the intentto destroy a cultural, racial or religious group. In the weeds of this process lies many an ‘excuse for inaction’, Lee writes.

The genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda are livid red in living memory. The nature of each was known by those in a position to stop the killings at the times they occurred. But in each case, especially in that of Rwanda, the United States did everything it could not only to deny those mass killings the name of ‘genocide’, but to avoid all the moral responsibility the term contained.

These kinds of derailments are largely semantic discussions, designed, as often as not, to avoid doing anything to avert tragedies in progress. Much of the debate in Britain about what, precisely, we might call Chinese policies regarding Uighur demographics – even the most condemnatory – performs the same function, intended or not.

As unhappy as this situation is, Lee does suggest a tactic for prevention that may still be possible. In no small part because the Genocide Convention so effectively defined genocide as a concept, the crime of race-murder does have international legal weight. At the end of 2019, The Gambia began legal proceedings against Burma at the International Court of Justice (ICJ). Its case claims that Burma’s military has committed mass murder and rape against the Rohingya. Because this is a case involving alleged genocide, The Gambia has legal standing sufficient to bring the action.

Lee believes that this case has positive effects – but not only because it is likely that Burma will be deemed guilty of the commission of a genocide. Instead, good may be done because, while the case proceeds, the ICJ has not only placed Burma ‘on notice’ and its military under observation; it has also instituted provisional measures designed to halt any actions which might constitute genocide in the interim.

A new book, When We Dead Awaken by James Robins, approaches the same subject from a historical perspective. It chronicles a particular aspect of the Armenian genocide whose horrors spawned much of the legal and political contentions which now exert such influence over discussion of the actions of Burma and China.

Robins notes the perversity of the Anzac countries’ unwillingness to reference genocide in Armenia, even though some of their forces witnessed these events, in favour of smoothing diplomatic relations with Turkey – in favour of commemorating Gallipoli, among other things.

Robins makes an effective case that the genocide is elided among the Anzac nations for reasons of contemporary politics. He writes that not only did Australian and New Zealand newspapers report on the genocide as it occurred, and small towns and villages held charitable collections for Armenia, and across the empire speeches from the House of Lords, like those of Viscount Bryce, on the subject of genocide were reported; so too some Anzac soldiers like Captain Robert Nicol, who were in the area on another operation, fought and died to protect a fleeing Armenian column which was subsequently overtaken by Ottoman forces.

They who saw these things knew of them and did what they could to halt their horrors. The purposeful forgetting and withholding of recognition are entirely of our own time.

Lee proposes a solution which is reasonable and fair; it involves largely setting aside the mechanisms of recognising and punishing genocide as a crime beyond others. It could take in the episodes of brutality which are defined, as the war in Syria is, as ‘extermination’ rather than genocide.

Robins told me that in Armenia after the First World War, much of the effort at relief came from non-state sources. ‘After the Armenian Genocide, support and aid and sympathy poured in from across the globe – major mobilisations by people who weren’t themselves affected and who in fact represented the only support for an afflicted people. Their governments either had no interest in protecting victims, or were imposing a political settlement (the Treaty of Sevres) that would have made things much worse.

‘Aid and solidarity’ of this kind ‘won’t stop a genocide, but it does make it slightly less futile. Today, these mass mobilisations on behalf of a target population are still possible. It’s just a matter of will and moral fibre. It’s also a way to intervene in a genocidal situation if state and legal actors are doing nothing’, Robins said.

Amid the desolation of Syria, NGOs and individual campaigns have largely filled the gaps left by nations. The states have washed their hands.

Lee suggests that international bodies and other states ought to see mass-killing, of any kind, or the constructing and filling of concentration camps, and act to stop each in turn. No need to wait for a designation of genocide which will never arrive, nor for a torturous legal process to be initiated and concluded. Instead those who can see must say what is in evidence, and must act to do what they can. No matter their formal position on the technicalities of an admired convention.

The Critic, February 1, 2021

American Turn-over

In America, a new presidential administration means new faces. Some of them are immediately visible; others take a while to make themselves known. With a new press secretary, Jen Psaki, taking questions with a frequency and a reserved, non-adversarial professionalism not exhibited by her predecessors, the appearances are clear: it is all change, and back to normal.

Also visible are the confirmation hearings which wind their way through the senate – votes to determine whether Joe Biden’s choices for the cabinet will be allowed to take their positions. All parties have agreed to streamline this process, with the hope that it might take as little time as possible.

Here appearances diverge from reality. It is certainly televisual to see Lloyd Austin – now secretary of state for defence – taking questions and subsequently be confirmed in office by a senate vote. It does the administration some good to have Antony Blinken – Biden’s secretary of state – expound on his vision for America before a committee of senators. But as C-SPAN viewers the world over can attest, this process is not just punishing to watch; even when accelerated, it is punishingly slow.

In a parliamentary system, cabinet ministers have either their own seats in the legislature or the security of serving at the pleasure of the executive. They can get to work straight away, as soon as the requisite elections are won. A British custom for newly appointed ministers in the Commons to fight by-elections, something which not infrequently forced them into unlikely defeats, was eventually and sensibly stopped as a ridiculous and waste of time.

But parliamentary systems have another advantage, too, something Americans may not necessarily appreciate. With the executive branch embedded in the legislature, and thus enmeshed with the normal business of governing and its permanent cast of characters, there is little turnaround and turnover when one party takes over.

The wheels of government keep turning, whoever is in charge. Absent a few noteworthy appointments, the civil service continues to trundle along. This is not so in America.

One of the complaints most frequently – and justifiably – laid against Donald Trump was his laziness: particularly in making appointments to the sprawling executive branch bureaucracy, much of which is staffed by political choices who serve at the whim of the president. Jobs lay unfilled for years, some for the entire term of Trump’s presidency.

Appointees or career civil servants covered for their absent colleagues, or held office in an acting capacity almost indefinitely. Friction was inevitable. Important things fell through the cracks. Work went undone.

Biden came to office publicly wishing to undo the wrongs of his predecessor. But all this is still subject to institutional inertia of the kind that other democracies would not tolerate.

The second a president is replaced, so too are all of his appointed staff. At that moment, their jobs are not filled; they are empty. For all the pretences of this and every transition, there are fewer hands on the wheel.

Private conversations I have had with those close to specific areas of international policy suggest that no official is set to be appointed in their area of expertise for up to a year. This is not for lack of trying on the part of the new administration. To wait a year for a point of contact must be more than a little frustrating. But to know that the job is going undone all that time is maddening.

For all the Biden transition’s show of being on top of appointments, the sheer unwieldiness of the federal government and its lack of continuity mean that it may well take far too long to appoint replacements to certain vital posts in American diplomacy or policy.

This does not only leave jobs unfilled. The hardness and certainty of this churn means that good, decent professionals like Joel Rayburn (formerly US Special Envoy for Syria) were automatically out of a job the moment Donald Trump was. Rayburn spent January 20 telling his Arab friends, in their language, that democracy prevailed in America, and hoped that Syrians would live to see democracy take root in their own lands. (He will now work for a senator.)

But this churn doesn’t just throw good people out; it also means needless discontinuity in policy. Matt Pottinger, the architect of much that is creditable about Trump’s haphazard China policy, is not only out of a job; he simply could not be retained because of his association with the previous reviled administration. This despite the fact that much of Pottinger’s policy has become standard in Washington, embraced by both congressional parties. It is a shame and a waste that its architect could not be retained to continue it.

Despite the Biden administration’s pretence that it is moving quickly, it is not. Its pace is largely set by the glacial speed adopted by administrations past, and the dictates of such a large, politicised executive branch. The flaws of this system may be difficult to avert, but it is not impossible. If Biden wished to put his desire for unity and bipartisanship into action, all the while moving as quickly as he says he wishes to do, he ought to consider retaining at least some of the previous president’s best people. Otherwise, for up to a year, the cabinet and the press secretary will have no one behind their new, fresh faces.

The Critic, February 3, 2021

China’s Media Empire

It has become increasingly clear that communist China is a world-spanning empire-in-waiting. More than this, its leaders are increasingly unwilling to wait.

They have launched ambitious initiatives, possibly too ambitious, to reformulate global trade with China at its centre. They have bought up the natural resources and ports of a number of countries. They have tried to make China the guarantor of global logistics, both physical and technological.

China has followed this material expansion with a new, expansionist diplomacy befitting the coming rulers of the world. Periodically Taiwan is threatened with invasion, while Chinese and Indian soldiers have fatal fist-fights at their Himalayan border – not least to reassure spectators than in all of these undeclared conflicts, China is winning.

Beyond military mobilisation and overt action, beyond even ‘wolf-warrior diplomacy’, it is media and the internet where China has shown its growing strength. A new report from the National Endowment for Democracy in the United States describes the methodology behind China’s growing influence. It subdivides these efforts into four branches: outright propaganda, of which there is very much; disinformation, which crops up in the most idiosyncratic places; censorship, domestic and international; and ‘gaining influence over key nodes in the information flow’ – a strangulated name for a frightening thing.

Chinese propaganda is too overt to be insidious and can often seem too tone-deaf to be effective. A Chinese embassy tweet, which justified its demographic destruction of the Uighur minority in Xinjiang by reference to improved family planning, drew much scorn and condemnation before being removed by Twitter. It likely made few converts.

But ham-fisted attempts at reframing discussion of Chinese genocide are not the sum total of these efforts. Chinese media has wormed its way into making ‘content sharing’ agreements with local media in countries across the world. Some people take to these arrangements with a little too much pleasure.

When the Greek left-wing darling Yanis Varoufakis was asked why his new media group Progressive International had signed up the Qiao Collective – an influence operation not far distant from the perspective of Chinese state – he responded with the following pro-forma.

I oppose with all my strength the oppression of minorities in China and the hideous clampdown on [Hong Kong] demonstrators [and] [Hong Kong] Poly[technic University] students. But at the same time I oppose with equal strength the demonisation of China by the US military-industrial complex and their push for a new cold war.

By ‘oppose with all my strength’, he presumably meant ‘tweeting’. And by ‘at the same time’ and ‘equal’, he presumably meant ‘at least as much’, or he would not have bothered with the qualification.

This kind of tacit influence cannot even be bought, only earnt by proximity and association.

Critics of China are treated rather less well. The report finds that Chinese embassy staff have directly threatened foreign journalists in Sweden and Russia, and undermined coverage in Nigeria. Chinese companies have bought significant slices of the media in the Czech Republic and South Africa, derailing coverage of China’s genocide in Xinjiang in so doing. Nepal’s state media, prompted by an agreement to ‘share content’ with the Chinese Xinhua agency, mounted an internal investigation into the conduct of three journalists who reported, in the ordinary fashion, on the existence and activities of the Dalai Lama.

In markets where Chinese companies own a significant portion of the broadcast market (notably across Africa), access to ‘more independent global news sources’ like the BBC and CNN has become ‘significantly more expensive’.

As to the effect of all of this, across the poorer countries of the world, the people are increasingly well-disposed to China’s leaders (if not always to China itself), and increasingly hostile to the world’s great democracies. It is plausible to think that as Chinese influence begins to tell in the developing world, those countries which contain the majority of the world’s population may begin to look more actively towards Beijing rather than simply enjoying the experience of handling its money.

In developed countries too, things do not look good. In so far as the public cares about international affairs, these tastes are not well served with information. The relative financial precarity of the press, its susceptibility to disinformation and outright lies, and the ignorance of many journalists and consumers of media – all give hope to any seeking to influence Western public opinion for little cost, or to sow discord and confusion for others’ gain.

Numerous reasons could be found to do nothing about all this. It would be easy either to brush these things off as unimportant or, separately, to consider them inevitable and consign the future to one of Chinese pre-eminence in international media as well as in commerce.

But the pandemic and China’s increasingly flagrant genocide also offer a salutary opportunity to reverse the above. Across the world, suspicion of China’s early handling of the disease which has killed millions could likely provide a basis for broader scepticism of its intentions. The increasingly incontrovertible evidence of China’s concentration camps, and slave labour in Xinjiang, will offend the sensibilities of anyone who is not wilfully ignorant.

A great push in propaganda only works if those systems it intends to subvert allow their own undermining. And recognising that China seeks to overturn not only who runs the world, but also who shapes world opinion may provide a necessary shock to the system. It is not yet too late.

The Critic, February 12, 2021

China’s New Surveillance State

Authoritarian states do not respond well to crises. They deceive and conceal, and care little for human life when compared to the survival of the regime. But when a crisis settles in, and becomes routine, tyrannies can always be counted upon to capitalise somehow. They can turn the very worst that befalls a people to the state’s advantage.

And so China has responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Not with openness and a desire to cooperate, but with obfuscation and bluster, continued obstinacy on Taiwanese membership of world institutions, and more besides.

But perhaps most dangerously, the pandemic has afforded the Chinese state a dream opportunity: a chance to extend its reach and intensify its grip on China’s people, most visible in a new drive towards state surveillance.

Public health demands knowledge of the public. This is something both authoritarian and democratic countries have now decided. Many nations have begun to trial software and practical apparatus designed to keep tabs on the movement and interaction of people, all the better to erect digital cordons sanitaires around the ill and infectious, and to keep outbreaks and newly emerging clusters under control.

Those who campaign for privacy have expressed disquiet across the board.

But in China, the infrastructure of supervision and control pioneered in suppression of minorities disliked by the state is becoming more and more widespread.

The Chinese state has begun to introduce a new system of cameras to monitor the movements of the population, including outside people’s front doors and, potentially, within their homes. This could mean more than an interruption of private life in keeping with exceptional times.

It might signal the moment the Chinese state decided all pretence was off, and the moment to institute day-round, endless supervision of the population had come.

It would stretch credulity, but there is a tacit defence some have offered to these measures.

The Chinese state has responded to the virus in a remarkable way. Separating outright deceit and propaganda from the reality of matters is difficult. But regardless of its claims of success, the state in China has implemented a highly interventionist policy.

Its officials take temperatures almost incessantly. They demand that people isolate themselves when apparently symptomatic, and actively separate out those who might carry the virus from the rest of the population. People are placed in convalescent hospitals whether they have a severe case of the disease or not.

These interruptions to ordinary life seem invasive but largely benign. But those measures that follow in train may prove rather more worrying.

The cameras most notably. In Xinjiang, where the system was pioneered, there are cameras ‘everywhere, on the street corner, inside every building’, according to one approving local interviewed last year by the Financial Times. He suggested that there was no crime; there was no place for it to hide. But that is not the sole point of this system of surveillance.

These cameras keep the Uighur minority under constant watch. It is the most obvious and intrusive aspect of a broader Chinese campaign against Uighurs which includes increased observation, widespread cultural suppression, and ends with mass prison camps and forced labour.

But it all begins with surveillance, constant and relentless, a background to and example of the Chinese state’s mistreatment of a minority it deems undesirable.

In trying to stop the spread of the virus, most countries have had to reach into a box of tricks they would rather not deploy. They have locked down their citizens, often on pain of fines or even imprisonment. They have mandated the wearing of masks. They have closed schools, and bars, restaurants and gyms, and banned large gatherings.

Some countries have witnessed government overreach as the scope of the crisis became clear, but to differing extents.

Hungary has seen its illiberal prime minister, Viktor Orban, extend his own power to rule by decree – to the chagrin of his European Union neighbours, and some muted international condemnation.

For a time, before the formation of a new government could be agreed, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his caretaker cabinet operated without the say-so of the parliament, and acted to divert efforts to try him for corruption.

The county has also implemented strenuous conditions to its lockdown, and has directed some of the technology used for counterterrorism and national security inward, to monitor the disease’s spread among the population.

Whether Israel, Hungary and other countries resume ordinary government any moment soon remains in question. Many nations have passed sweeping legislation designed to smooth the path of economic stimulus, and to effect the commandeering of national resources and the redirection of manufacturing to fill orders of medical necessity.

But China has gone yet further than all of them. its box of tricks is capacious, and its apparatus is well-practised in using the tools at its disposal to monitor, to suppress, and to harass those the state consider threats to the Communist Party’s plan for the nation.

In many countries there is vigorous discussion about the creeping authoritarianism that responding to the virus might incentivise and reward.

And there is some talk among expatriates in China about whether a new network of cameras is legal. But it will do little good. Rather significantly, these discussions miss the fact that the Chinese state can do whatever it likes.

It can only be a concern that some of those tools which once saw special use in victimising a minority are now taking their place as a feature of uniform national policy. It is a singularly worrying prospect.

The New Arab, May 6, 2020

China’s Data-Driven Dystopia

Despite its vast power, Chinese communism apparently feels itself dogged by enemies, internal and external.

Some of these are the states who do not conform to China’s economic and geographic ambitions. Others are portions of China’s population, notably the inhabitants of Hong Kong, who protest and, this week, voted for their rights to remain uninfringed by Beijing.

But other enemies are less real than imagined. They include millions of people who the state perceives as enemies, simply by dint of who they are and what they believe. In Xinjiang province, where many Uighars reside, enemy status is increasingly predicated on race and faith.

Despite the size of its territory and the internal diversity within its country, China’s authorities have a narrow vision for what a citizen should be and how one should behave. Faith in anything other than the party and the state is an obstacle. Being of an ethnic group which has historic ties to Islam and to non-Chinese identities – that’s another.

The scale of China’s problem with ethnic and religious minorities is vast and serious.

But what separates Chinese persecution of Uighars and those who profess Islam from historic examples such as those described by Roland Elliott Brown’s newly published look at Soviet atheism, Godless Utopia, is the allying of the hyper-precision of technology with the ordinary tools and intents of autocracy.

An investigation conducted by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, in concert with dozens of global newspapers and media organisations, has put flesh on the bones of China’s persecution, which have been long visible.

Many hundreds of thousands, likely millions, have been sent to camps which the Chinese state maintains are ‘reform schools’ and ‘centres for re-education’. That they are sent as punishment is clear.

It’s clear from the chain fences and guards which surround these institutions, and a series of legal documents collected by investigators. For crimes which include mildly proselytising his religious morality, one Muslim Uighar was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. The sentence was designed – so the judgement document implies – to improve the ‘low legal awareness’ cited in his defence. This is accompanied by a restriction of his ‘political rights’ for five years.

China maintains that its mass incarceration is the only response to political ignorance from which it wants to rescue the local population, but also, and more pressingly, a just reply to ‘terrorism’ present in Xinjiang and its surrounds.

In a regional briefing, which notes the numbers using a given website popular among Uighurs, the authors call for the continued mass surveillance of Uighars and the collection of lists of ‘unauthorised imams’. It mentions the ongoing spectre of ISIS and the Turkistan Islamic Party, members of which have fought in Syria.

The documents suggest that a popular app – Zapya, ‘known in Chinese as Kuai Ya (fast tooth)’, whose creators encourage users to ‘download the Quran and share religious teachings with loved ones’ – is routinely used by the Chinese state to collect data on its users, and to serve as a basis for state investigations into individuals’ characters and activities.

Another note stresses mundane aspects of investigative work, and the importance of integrating the work of local and regional authorities. But hovering overhead is the mission – one of mass surveillance and ideological programming hidden under claims of a purely educative and counter-terrorist ambition. 

‘If the target is a student, they [the authorities] should conduct criticism and education guidance’, the document reads. ‘And if they have problems’, it continues, ‘they must also be dealt with according to law.’

Those either possessing or pursuing foreign nationality would find themselves under investigation, with euphemistic ‘education and training’ an option available to officials. According to the document, any Uighar abroad who requested a replacement of legitimate documents from Chinese embassies or consulates would also experience extensive investigation.

In the system China has constructed, inhabitants of Xinjiang are flagged for investigation and possible arrest on the basis of ‘seemingly innocuous criteria’, including such inanities as ‘daily prayer, travel abroad, or frequently using the back door of their home’.

This highly integrated system includes the data gathered by extensive networks of cameras equipped with facial recognition, which feed dossiers that compile evidence of poor behaviour.

Hence the need for proper organisation in police work, as other documents stress. The database must be carefully maintained. Profiles must be merged if they discuss the same person. Those denoting people who do not exist, or false names, or the names of the deceased, must be purged to aid better the monitoring of the living.

The documents and the investigation show what China is doing, and the objectives it is trying to achieve in the process.

They show the fruits of modernity which China autocratically employs to reach these ends.

But the result of the investigation shows another side of China’s high-tech autocracy: its embracing of the language of the moment – to dispute the truthfulness, and the reality, of the accusations levelled against the Chinese state.

The Chinese government and its embassies, including the Chinese embassy in the United Kingdom, insist that the camps are not prison camps but rather educative in nature; and ambassadors have called reporting on the subject ‘fake news’ and the documents ‘fabrications’.

Among China’s Arab and Muslim allies, there is little debating all of this. Many have seemingly vouchsafed either that the camps are not real or are justified in dealing with the ‘terror threat’ in Xinjiang.

In Pakistan, China has sought to spy on Uighurs. Pakistan has also pointedly refused to condemn China’s policies in Xinjiang. So has Saudi Arabia. Despite pressure from Uighur activists and domestic opposition politicians, Malaysia and Indonesia mull their options, having not yet decided whether to condemn or to condone.

And as ever, on Western social media, a diverse crew seeks newer and more inventive ways to defend the actions of the Chinese state.

Even with all the evidence these leaks have brought forward, straightforward condemnation, or even a rest from disputing the realities of what so many see before their eyes, seem very far from possible.

And all the while, China’s algorithmic autocracy trundles on.

The New Arab, November 28, 2019

The Hezbollah Murders

Earlier this month, Lokman Slim, an activist and writer, was murdered in Lebanon. He was found in his car, shot five times. As an unprompted assassination of a nonviolent man, this act was formally deplored by many and greatly condemned. After Slim’s death was confirmed, there was an outpouring of anguish from beyond Lebanon. In life Slim was a witty critic of Hezbollah, a fixture of his country’s public sphere, and a source and a friend to many.

There was little doubt who had killed him. Hezbollah was a frequent target of Slim’s activism and media appearances. His documentary Tadmor, about the brutal Syrian prison system of Hezbollah’s ally, the regime of Bashar al-Assad, angered his domestic opponents and their foreign patrons. Hezbollah’s own press had denounced him as an aider of foreign governments, and a ‘Shiite of the embassies’, a traitor to his religion. When he died, pro-Hezbollah social media gloated and said that he had got what he had courted for so long.

Slim did not expect to be killed. He lived in the Beirut suburbs openly, even though his home and garden were the site of protests, and continued to do so amid all the threats aimed in his direction.

Alex Rowell, the Beirut-based editor of al-Jumhuriya, writes that in their last meeting years ago, ‘Engulfed in his cigarette smoke, with his trademark wide grin on his distinctly reddish face, he laughed in his deep, raspy voice that Hezbollah’s outlandish claims against him – that he was a “traitor” and “Zionist agent,” and so on – had gone from being an accusation (tihme) into a mere joke (nikte); something nobody seriously believed or really cared about anymore, even among the Party’s base’.

Slim, Rowell concludes, ‘never truly imagined Hezbollah would bother to do him physical harm. He’d got away with it all for long enough, after all’.

I spoke to Rowell about whether this represented a change in Hezbollah’s deployment of violence. He said Slim’s murder ‘marks the first killing inside Lebanon of a prominent critic of Hezbollah since 2013, when two such murders took place: those of the student activist Hashem Salman, in June 2013; and the veteran politician Mohamad Chatah in December 2013. So it certainly appears, at face value, as though it may herald a resumption of the kind of political assassinations that had ceased to occur for almost eight years.’

This satisfies the question of who killed Slim, and goes some way to explaining why they did so.

But exact prompt for Slim’s murder remains murky – if there was a single reason why he was suddenly deemed worthy of assassination.

Rumours, so far without corroboration, swirl about both pro- and anti-Hezbollah media surrounding one story. In Rowell’s words ‘One answer has been proposed by the journalist Mona Alami in al-Arabiya, who says Slim confided to her in the days before his killing that he was helping to facilitate the defection of a Hezbollah money launderer to the United States’.

No external proof has emerged to support this theory, but it is widely believed.

Phillip Smyth, Soref fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told me that in killing Slim, Hezbollah is ‘sending multiple messages. The first is domestic, they can send a message to their domestic foes – particularly fellow Shia – that they can act with impunity. The second is regional, that Iran’s proxies will act and act harshly when dealing with any opposition.’ Their third message is intended to push America, Smyth said.

To understand why this is one must appreciate Hezbollah’s strange, multi-dimensional position.

It is at once a foreign proxy of the Iranian regime, a terrorist group of the most violent kind, an army-for-hire in neighbouring Syria, a political party in Lebanon, and a low-grade mafia wherever its influence can be tangibly felt.

Hussain Abdul-Hussain, a journalist resident in Washington, D.C, told me: ‘Murder does not indicate there is any change in Hezbollah policy and behaviour, but rather an entrenchment of its rules that it imposed on Lebanon since 2005: Speak against us and we’ll kill you. And this is becoming the norm everywhere Iran can reach, whether in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, or Belgium, France and Austria.’

For all its violence, being enmeshed within Lebanon’s political system gives Hezbollah cover and protection. It is a necessary part of a fractured polity, with strong support among sections of Lebanese society. Any foreign government can, should it wish, overlook Hezbollah’s excesses and find a willing partner rather than a terrorist enemy.

Abdul-Hussain worries that the new American administration is too sympathetic to Iran and the stories of many of its proxies to mount much opposition to Slim’s killing.

With American media and politics so relentlessly partisan, and the Trump White House setting its public face against Iran, the Democratic party often sounded for the past four years like Iran’s friends in Washington. Its people opposed sanctions against the Iranian state and its proxies, (mutedly) wondered about the necessity of killing Iran’s leader of foreign operations Qassem Soleimani, and elevated Iran’s adversary Saudi Arabia to the level of an equal or greater evil.

For some Democrats, ‘fixing the world means inverting the current order’, Abdul-Hussain summarised.

‘As long as the Democrats think the order should be inverted, they will always attack Israel, Saudi, make a fuss out of [Jamal] Khashoggi [a journalist killed by Saudi Arabia in 2018], but don’t expect them to make a lot of noise about Lokman.’

The Biden state department produced a brief statement last week, ‘condemn[ing] the heinous assassination of prominent Lebanese activist Lokman Slim and join[ing] the international community in calling for his killers to be brought to swift justice’. It well knows that this will not happen.

Not while Hezbollah continues to enjoy patronage from Iran and impunity in Lebanon, and while this murderous group is able to hold political power and to operate as a mafia at the same time.

The Critic, February 16, 2021

George Shultz and Trust

If the admiring American coverage of his death is to be believed, the lodestar of George Shultz’s life was one of trust. Shultz lived to be a hundred and, in an essay to mark the occasion of his centenary, Shultz held that ‘trust is the coin of the realm’. When trust was ‘in the room’ he wrote, ‘good things happened. When trust was not in the room, good things did not happen. Everything else is details’. He died two months later on 6 February 2021.

Shultz fought in the Second World War and worked for Eisenhower in government. He was one of the last survivors of the deceit-flavoured administration of Richard Nixon. Shultz focused on the desegregation of schools, one of the more honourable aspects of federal work in that period. His personal trustworthiness was not tarnished by association with Nixon.

During the Reagan years Shultz served as a long-term secretary of state. He was responsible for negotiations with the Soviet Union which concluded with the signing of a number of arms-reduction treaties. Proceedings were followed to and fro by Reagan’s butchered repeating of a Russian proverb: Doveryay, no proveryay – trust, but verify. Shultz later reflected that the public trusted Reagan because of his unmatched skill in communication; but also that Reagan’s capacity to communicate was built upon the fact that the public trusted the president implicitly.

Nonetheless, on occasion, Shultz had to risk his own credibility for the sake of the executive. When Reagan was first accused of, and finally admitted to, selling arms to Iran and funnelling the proceeds to the Nicaraguan contras, it was Shultz who testified to Congress that the administration had not known of the arms sales, nor where the money they generated went.

Reagan dissembled his admission of the deception with trademark skill. On his earlier, false denials, he said: ‘My heart and my best intentions tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.’

Shultz was less flamboyant: he spoke before Congress of ‘the flow of information [that the president deserves] to be given’ and how its lack meant that he and Reagan were effectively kept in the dark. Enough people trusted that explanation for the administration to weather the scandal.

Perhaps the defining story of Shultz’s life was a scandal which overtook his later years: the Theranos fraud. His involvement with the company attested to his willingness to trust even those who were unworthy of being trusted.

Theranos was a company which purported to be on the cusp of revolutionising medicine. Its CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, claimed that its new devices could perform any number of medical tests on barely a thimbleful of blood. The need to give many pints of blood for analysis would disappear.

Drawing blood would be as easy as pricking a finger, she promised, and practically painless. Diagnosis would become simple and medical care could become cheap and largely preventative. Many lives would be extended, or saved wholesale.

The company was soon valued at many billions of dollars. Holmes was briefly celebrated as a hero, and became a very rich woman. But as documented in John Carreyrou’s reporting for the Wall Street Journal and then in his book, Bad Blood, Theranos was in fact an audacious fraud.

Its machines did not work and the tests they performed were faulty. Theranos fabricated its results and lied to its investors. Those tests it performed for members of the public were wildly inaccurate. All the while, Theranos pursued whistleblowers and hounded its staff, one of them to the point of suicide.

Shultz was one of a distinguished group of luminaries and rich men who made up the company’s board, which included James Mattis and Henry Kissinger. The board was an ornament, and a testament to Holmes’ ability to manipulate men who should not, ordinarily, have been fooled. Shultz and his wife hosted Holmes’ thirtieth birthday party.

The trust the board extended to Holmes held for too long; Shultz’s too. All until a most extraordinary coincidence.

Tyler Shultz, George Shultz’s own grandson, worked for Theranos. He joined the company as soon as he left university, enthralled by its vision. He saw the hoax first-hand. The younger Shultz noted Theranos’ myriad deceitful practices and the uphill struggle of the company’s engineers to make the hype surrounding their machines match reality. He took his complaints, brushed aside by Holmes, first to his grandfather – who did not believe him – and then to the press.

Tyler Shultz idolised his grandfather and wanted to protect his reputation. He was one of Carreyrou’s first sources.

While the reporter worked away, Tyler Shultz was urged to keep silent by counsel. George Shultz, meanwhile, was the subject of entreaties from Holmes, whom he still believed. While the story unfolded, Shultz the grandfather and his grandson ‘hadn’t seen each other for the better part of a year and they communicated only through lawyers’. Carreyrou considered this estrangement one of the sadder episodes of the case.

Finally, after much of the reporter’s work was published and went unrefuted, Tyler Shultz succeeded in convincing his grandfather that the company was fabricating its results. Just as Theranos collapsed and criminal investigations began into its active directors, the two were reconciled.

After an episode which proved he was capable of trusting the wrong people, the elder Shultz was determined to put right the results of his mistrust. George Shultz let it be known that ‘he deeply loves and respects his grandson Tyler’ and is ‘very proud of Tyler’ for what he had done.

The Critic, February 18, 2021

Saudi Arabia’s ‘Premature Reformers’

Last week, Loujain al-Hathloul, a Saudi women’s rights activist, was released from her imprisonment. She had been in prison for a thousand days and was jailed on a dubious pretence. The delight of her family and her many supporters has not diminished their sense that al-Hathloul was jailed unjustly, for no reason at all.

The Saudi state has a problem with women’s rights and with the women who demand them. In the recent past its opposition was straightforward and monolithic. The state was clerical and conservative. All women who wanted to dress as they liked, or to drive, or to live under a system other than one of male guardianship, were enemies of the state and of the faith – and opposed on those grounds.

Women’s rights activists interviewed by Peter Theroux in the 1980s, whose stories appeared in his memoir Sandstorms, by and large ended up in prison or disillusioned.

Now things are subtly different.

Under Mohammad bin Salman, the powerful crown prince, Saudi Arabia wishes to present an image of new, dynamic convergence with modernity. This means allowing reforms, some token and others significant. When the state unilaterally allowed women to drive in 2017, a single domino fell. None else have fallen since.

When Saudi Arabia conceded to one demand of the activists, and publicly suggested its own reforming credentials, the kingdom’s problem with those demanding reform changed.

It wants to be seen as the sole guarantor and granter of women’s rights. New reforms are intended as acts of arbitrary generosity. The state wants to do all this in its own time and reap the rewards and international recognition, completely without pressure.

Those who seek to apply that pressure are unwelcome, and duly punished. For her part in opposing the still-existing system of male guardianship, al-Hathloul was kidnapped from the UAE and confined in a series of prisons.

A major report in Newlines magazine details the cruel treatment of other female activists in the country. Disobedient women, especially those requiring social or religious ‘correction’ are confined to institutions called Dar al-Reaya – ‘Homes of Care’. The conditions there are akin to imprisonment. They have all the dour features of prison, with solitary confinement for some prisoners and, amid very patchy information, at least one reported suicide of a resident.

Those kept in these institutions often got there by accusing their guardians of an abuse, or were merely handed over to the state as requiring correction on the word of a male relative.

In 2019 enough women’s rights activists either fled Saudi Arabia or attempted to do so that it became known as the ‘year or runaways’. Many escaped either poor treatment mandated by the laws of the state or the repercussions of attempting to protest against them.

Why would the state target these women while it attempts, in its own words, to reform the place of women – cultural and legal – in Saudi society?

It seems the Saudi state, which attempts to paint itself as dynamic and reforming, deeply dislikes these activists because they represent an alternative to reform granted as a favour from dynastic and clerical power. Women like al-Hathloul are arrested, in other words, because they show the state up by demanding more from it than it is willing to concede.

In the middle of the twentieth century, at the height of the red scare, there was a suggestion among socialists and communists that the affiliations which tarred them with suspicion and difficulty were longer-standing than the beginning of the cold war. Those who had fought in Spain against Franco, for example, largely with communist and anarchist militias, spread the rumour that this was at the root of their problems with the government at home. While the American state was not at war with fascism, these people were; and so, they said, somewhere in an FBI archive their file included a note which labelled them each a ‘premature anti-fascist’.

This is, to my knowledge, an entirely unfounded rumour, intended to be as amusing as it was sinister. It is a relevant analogy in this case.

The women arrested and imprisoned for political agitation by the Saudi state are not accused of ordinary crimes. Many of them have suffered because they supported social changes that have since been endorsed and effected by the kingdom. They are ‘premature reformers’ – sole error was advocating for a change in policy before the state got around to the same view.

That al-Hathloul was imprisoned follows this pattern. She opposed male guardianship, which is still a fact of law and life, but was imprisoned for an extreme, punitive length of time. Her release raises its own questions. Is it a prelude to another showy reform, or merely an attempt to dim the bad press al-Hathloul’s confinement continually caused (something which may well have influenced a new American administration)?

If this is a PR effort, it coincides with another push of the dynamic, reforming schtick. I have lately noticed more effort being exerted to promote various projects of the Saudi state on social media, including Neom, its promised city of the future – a hypermodern vision of a technological state reformed and sleek, no longer dependent on oil or repression.

Neom is no closer to fruition than when the idea was first unveiled, rather like the still-unmade reforms which have been demanded since long before al-Hathloul was imprisoned.

The Critic, February 19, 2021

America and Shia Militias

So great is America’s identity crisis in this century of isolationism, that its citizens have spent last week and this one bickering among themselves about whether the United States should retaliate when it is attacked by an avowed enemy.

But first, a little background. On February 25, the United States bombed Shia militias operating in Abu Kamal, in the eastern Syrian desert. Although some more unreliable monitors claimed over 20 had been killed in the attack, it seems that only one man was.

The group that was hit is Kataib Hezbollah (also known as the Hezbollah Brigades). Kataib Hezbollah is nominally Iraqi but operates in Syria at the behest of, and with the intention to benefit, Iran. Its former commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed alongside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps—Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani at the beginning of last year.

Iranian-sponsored militias use the Syrian desert as a staging post for their supplying of the regime of Bashar al-Assad; and the passage of weapons and material to their fellow militias in Lebanon and southern Syria, where militias threaten the Israeli border.

It is into this area that militias made up of imported Afghans and Pakistanis work. The area is a confluence of militias involved in furthering Iran’s regional strategy of proxy warfare.

The United States struck this particular militia for good reason. Iranian-sponsored militias inside Iraq have created merry hell for years.  They have killed protesters and political opponents. They have committed many war crimes hidden beneath the veil of the pan-national fight against ISIS. They have resolutely taken over the political and cultural institutions of the state, leaving Iraqi democracy a sham and many government departments operating like vestigial organs.

And they have repeatedly attacked the small American presence in Iraq with rockets – including this week, in the course of which one American died, and two weeks ago, in which one American was killed and nine others received wounds.

The militias are swaggering and violent. They murder without cost in Iraq and are more than content to perform acts of terrorism which cross borders. Strangely, this was missed or ignored by many commentators, who preferred to consider the American strike – the first of Biden’s young presidency – an act of aggression worthy of comment.

A corresponding American attack on the militias was warranted in order to re-establish some deterrence to ward off the militia’s unchecked aggression. A strike of this kind is wholly in keeping with the American fetish of striking back only within the bounds of proportionality.

One thing to distinguish this run of the mill action (of a piece with the attacks carried out by Israel against the very same groups all the time in Syria) was the pertinence and even irony of hitting a nominally Iraqi militia doing Iran’s bidding in the Syrian desert. This is akin to tapping an obvious interloper on the head to signal that his presence is both noticed and undesired.

 The hysteria with which all this was met was both predictable and dispiriting. Americans of an isolationist streak combine immense ignorance with striking self-obsession. To them no conflict exists before America participates in it. Every American action is part of a ‘forever war’ – a war distinct from, say, the gunning down of Iraqi protestors by Iranian agents and the decades-long battle of Afghans to resist Taliban domination independent of American involvement.

It does not matter that the American part of these wars are fought at great distance from the American homeland by a professional army which suffers strikingly few losses, and trundles along entirely without affecting the majority of the American population.

Naturally, many isolationists suggested that for Biden to fight back when America is attacked was akin to letting them down personally, and betraying the sensibilities of his voters.

But anyway – regardless of the huffing of this noisy domestic faction, this attack does not indicate that Biden’s foreign policy is likely to be more aggressive. Some analysts believe this attack was almost entirely gesture – the equivalent of bombing a couple of warehouses to show intent and calling it a day.

Phillip Smyth, a scholar of the militias, makes a valiant effort to argue that not only did this attack highlight the oddity of militias which are nominally part of the Iraqi armed forces freelancing for Iran in Syria; it also strengthens America’s hand in dealing with the array of militia groups which used to think they could pop up to take shots at America and not see their more overt side-lines affected.

Smyth believes that Biden has signalled he will not immediately resume the friendliness with Iran followed by Biden’s former superior, Barack Obama, representing ‘a welcome about-face from the errors of 2015’. One can only hope.

If true, this is indeed welcome, but it seems a little too much to derive from the deliberately limited if well-chosen bombing of an unpleasant collection of fighters in eastern Syria – whatever the histrionics of domestic American opinion.

The Critic, March 8, 2021

Thailand’s Monarchy in Crisis

The protesters who have been in the streets of Thailand for much of the last year are ranged against powerful forces. They oppose the authoritarianism of the country’s political leaders and the absurdity of its monarchy. First among the demonstrators’ enemies is the state, determinedly resisting their demands for greater democracy. Second is the army – loyal to the king and willing to injure and indeed to kill in defence of the status quo.

The third is more amorphous. And it is greater than the adoration of the yellow-clothed fans of the monarchy present at counter-demonstrations organised by the state. It is the nascent feeling of respect for the institution of the monarchy present in many Thai, something the protesters challenge openly – and increasingly in the tones of disrespect rendered illegal under the country’s laws of lèse-majesté.

These laws are intended to preserve the dignity of the monarchy by punishing those who insult of the king. Thai rapper and activist Ammy, born Chaiamorn Kaewwiboonpan, was sent to prison last week after “confessing” to burning a portrait of the king. This act of run-of-the-mill symbolic protest was deemed too much for the king’s majesty to take.

The Thai king, Vajiralongkorn, whose subjects have at one time been instructed to “worship” the monarchy, is ungodly rich. The wealth of the monarchy is estimated at $40 billion – and assets under direct royal control include valuable property and controlling stakes in major international firms. Demands for greater democracy and a more constitutional monarchy threaten the political power which accompanies that wealth.

Under the king’s father, Bhumibol, the monarchy still sparked protest. But Bhumibol’s long reign and the relative stability it promoted meant that by the time of his death in 2016, the old king was regarded with deep, reverential affection.

But the contrast between the old king, especially as he appeared in the dignified frailty of his final years, and his successor is immense. The new king has none of his father’s virtues; he appears to have no virtue at all.

According to America’s then-ambassador to the country, the Thai king made his late poodle Fufu an Air Chief Marshal in the Royal Thai Air Force. The dog appeared in public wearing a fetching tailored uniform with badges of rank to that effect. Dinners were held in its honour. There is footage, widely circulated within the country, of a lavish and surprisingly risqué birthday party held for the dog’s benefit a few years ago (though one doubts the dog appreciated that aspect as much as the future king). When it died, Fufu received something akin to a state funeral, and mourning for the dog was emphasised by state organs.

Fufu’s life seems to portray Vajiralongkorn at a midpoint between Caligula’s treatment of his horse Incitatus and the modern-day owner of an Instagram pet. But the king’s other proclivities tip him a little closer to the Roman emperor.

For years, it has been an open secret that the king likes extended holidaying in Germany. He spends much of his time in the country, where he was periodically pictured wandering around rural towns dressed in crop-tops and all manner of undignified fare.

To avoid the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic, the king was reported to have holed up in a Bavarian hotel with a bevy of women (invariably a “harem”, according to the international press) at the start of last year. His presence there eventually became so protracted and conspicuous that he received the threat of legal sanction if he continued to conduct Thai government business in Germany. It was deemed impolitic for the ruler of Thailand to operate almost exclusively from an alpine resort.

No doubt the absurdity of these repeated stories has hardly assuaged the anger of demonstrators in Thailand. Why is it reasonable to imprison them for insulting the monarchy when the king’s own behaviour disrespects the institution? If a monarchical system relies upon the dignity of the institution and the respect in which the king is held, how can it rest upon the shoulders of a man as undignified as Vajiralongkorn?

As the Thai military reacts to protests with force, and its courts sentence increasing numbers of demonstrators to jail, one wonders how long this uneasy stand-off between democrats and monarchists can last.

Authority in Thailand wishes to concede nothing and to maintain the absurdity of absolute monarchy, even in pretence. More’s the pity that this monarchy is embodied by one unworthy of figurehead status, let alone immense wealth accompanied by great power.

The Critic, March 10, 2021

Syria’s Civil War at Ten

Syria’s unending civil war is now a decade old. It has revealed the how willing and capable the regime of Bashar al-Assad is to use the fruits of cruelty to retain power. The war continually sinks to new depths. The catalogue of human suffering, affecting so many millions, becomes harder to hear and time goes on. Upon being told about this war, some become restless, while other eyes glaze over.

The truest assessments of Syria’s situation are often made by those who have endured the regime’s worst excesses, not least in its prisons. The novelist Mustafa Khalifa described his own long imprisonment in The Shell, combined with the story of a friend. It is the One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich of our own age; and as a Syrian Solzhenitsyn, Khalifa sees his country with uniquely clear eyes.

In 2011, Khalifa wrote this week, he produced an essay predicting that the regime would hang on to power through calculated savagery beyond what even its adversaries and those predicting blood-soaked downfall could anticipate.

For years before the emergence of protests and before those protests were crushed by the forces of the state, the regime had waged a ‘silent civil war’ against its population. Ethnic minorities were prevented from teaching their children their own languages. The majority who did not belong to Assad’s own Alawite sect were discriminated against in all things. They were failed at school and prevented from taking government jobs in a country where the state administered much of the economy.

Non-members of the Baath party found the basics of life difficult to acquire and sustain. Dissenters were imprisoned and tortured, sometimes killed, all things Khalifa’s life and the lives of his contemporaries attest. All of this before the first shots of the war to come were fired.

Once the war began, however, its brutality was immediately apparent. Taking the precedent of the 1982 Hama massacre – perpetrated by Assad’s father, Hafez – to heart, regime forces set about crushing the country’s cities one by one to drive its opponents out.

First the regime liquidated Homs, destroying its rebellious neighbourhoods completely – and in the years since the city has not recovered. Years later, it surrounded and finally asphyxiated Aleppo. Then it was the turn of the Damascus suburbs, whose reconquest was aided by canisters of poison gas.

These campaigns took years, time in which the regime sometimes looked close to falling, but its barbarism remained constant.

The slogans of regime forces are ‘Assad or we burn the country’ and ‘Kneel or starve’. In both cases the ‘or’ is a lie. The country is burnt, and still Assad remains. Amid the shortage of grain and crazed inflation, even those parts of Syria which have bent the knee to Assad now suffer without food.

In regime prisons, business has continued largely as before the war – with calculated brutality intensified only by the increasing numbers subjected to the torturers. Men like Mazen al-Hamada had unspeakable things done to them, activities which killed many and left some of those who survived husks of men.

And of course, amid the utter collapse of Syrian society, the Islamic State had its brief caliphate in pretence, with all the eye-catching savagery justified by its theologians and gloried in by its adherents.

While the world protractedly dealt with ISIS, the Assad regime remained vicious and grasping. Its chemical attacks brought predicable condemnation but also calculated success. The regime is estimated to have used chemical weapons over 300 times for that reason. With no one to stop or punish their use, weapons of mass destruction work chasteningly well.

This week also brought the thirty-third anniversary of the Halabja massacre, the moment Saddam Hussein forever associated his name with special infamy. In that chemical attack, the Iraqi state murdered up to 5,000 Kurds as part of its Anfal campaign, designed to destroy Kurdish opposition to Saddam in the dying days of the Iran-Iraq war.

On that date, the Iraqi state demonstrated new depths of barbarism. In the years since, the Syrian regime has exceeded them. It has wilfully presided over a war which has killed over a million Syrians and ground Syrian society to pieces.

Its forces have committed countless crimes under the cover of general war. And all the while, the apparatus of regime’s prison system has murdered tens of thousands in the relative open and ‘disappeared’ many tens of thousands more.

Syria itself has disappeared into this darkness. 

Belatedly, far too late, Saddam Hussein was deposed and tried for his crimes. The Assad regime remains in power; its members under international sanctions which are not onerous to the possessors of a country; and the possible threat of trial in countries none of Syria’s criminals intend to visit.

Syria’s war has licensed this century’s worst growth in violent depravity. It has effectively destroyed rather than merely bloodied a nation. All of this for nothing beyond the continued survival of a corrupted state at the expense of its people. The century’s most terrible war is ten years old, and it is not yet over.

The Critic, March 21, 2021

The Professor and the Spy

A while ago, eagerly and secretly, a professor at Edinburgh University began a correspondence over email with a man he thought was a Russian spy. ‘Ivan’, as the spy eventually took signing himself, wanted to thank the professor, Paul McKeigue, for his sterling efforts on matters of mutual interest. Those efforts, Ivan assured the professor, were appreciated by the boys in his office in Moscow.

Those efforts related to the Syrian civil war, a decade-long conflict which has left little legacy but irresolution and anguish. The professor and his new friend shared an entirely different view of that war, however. Together they told each other a fantastical story: one of a ten-year-long, and yet somehow unsuccessful, campaign by Western governments to overthrow the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad.

The regime change campaign apparently took place largely on the internet. And at its heart was a chemical weapons attack on the town of Douma in 2018 which, the professor maintained with relish, was faked. 

He and ‘Ivan’ had another point of convergence: that of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability (CIJA). CIJA has slowly and painstakingly collected together documentary evidence of the war’s course. It has amassed its archive of 1.3 million documents with the hope to putting some of the war’s many criminals on trial. People working on its behalf have searched refuse dumps and collected innumerable scraps of wastepaper. 

Ba’athist states, of which Syria is one, are often corrupt, but their tendency toward bureaucracy has some advantages. One of which is what these officious systems tend to document their activities entirely without thinking. The Ba’athist addiction to paperwork often provides extensive evidence of things cannier – or more chaotic – states would hide away. Things like the disappearance of tens of thousands into prison systems, and the sudden deaths of those people from previously undiagnosed heart problems.

CIJA’s work on this front has its critics, but the professor and the spy were concerned for other reasons. Together they worried that all of its paper, all of its evidence, would succeed in undermining the Assad regime.

To prevent all this getting out, McKeigue was preparing a counter-report on CIJA for his own operation, the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media. To that end he was keen to extract useful information from ‘Ivan’. Was it possible that William Wiley, CIJA’s executive director, was a spook? Were all of his actions against Assad explained by an undisclosed addiction to cocaine?

As may have been obvious from the beginning to a mind more on the rails, ‘Ivan’ was not in fact a man from the Moscow office. He was a construct, a creation of staff from CIJA, who were doing their level best to understand precisely what the professor’s problem with them was, and to whom he was turning for help. In the course of their artificial conversation, the CIJA staff discovered not only that McKeigue was entirely comfortable in dealing with Russian intelligence, but also that he was prepared to make the sorts of accusations which get people killed. 

He accused a producer for the BBC of being an MI6 officer, and said the same of Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former army colonel and cofounder of non-governmental organisations which operate in the parts of Syria not controlled by the regime.

For Mohammed Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer at Stirling University and a journalist, McKeigue entertained some variation. Ahmad, according to him, was possibly both MI6 and CIA. Would ‘Ivan’ care to do some digging of his own to find out which?  

McKeigue also suggested ‘Ivan’ investigate local journalists looking into the chemical attack in Douma, tailing them if necessary. Journalists in that position often simply vanish under such investigation. 

Much has been said, not least by the people named above, about how this sort of thing is both a disgrace and a lie. Ahmad and de Bretton-Gordon feel under continual attack from members of the Working Group, who accuse them of sinister associations and evil plans. 

At the end of 2019, James Le Mesurier, a former army officer who worked with the White Helmets (a civilian rescue organisation in rebel-held Syria), committed suicide in Istanbul. De Bretton-Gordon and others maintain that becoming the focus of international conspiracy theorising was what chased Le Mesurier to his grave. The media arms of the Russian state held that the White Helmets was a front for al-Qaeda, and that Le Mesurier was its MI6 handler. At the forefront of this campaign were members of the Working Group. 

Briefly, I would like to note who some of the Working Group’s members are. David Miller is a sociologist at Bristol who believes Israel controls policymaking of the British Labour Party through front-group think tanks and Jewish donors. Piers Robison used to teach journalism at the University of Sheffield until he was let go, possibly because he believes that 9/11 was an inside job and that the Salisbury poisonings of 2018 were falsely blamed on Russia.

Vanessa Beeley is a blogger who traded a small-scale life in Europe for semi-celebrity in Syria. When a busload of foreigners was conducted around the country by the regime on a propaganda tour in 2018, Beeley was wheeled out to address them. She lives comfortably in Damascus, where she maintains a fluorescent pink Volkswagen Beetle with portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez, pasted to its back window.

Robinson and Beeley, ‘Ivan’ was told, could be contacted via Sergey Krutskikh, a Russian diplomat in Geneva.

Beeley’s case perhaps exemplifies some of the reasons these people pick up quixotic causes like this, including lying for years about crimes against humanity. The men of the Working Group are middle-aged and elderly academics of no particular distinction. Their careers to date have brought them little fame. Conventional academic work offers them little except eventual retirement and obscurity.

But contrariness on Syria has brought them garlands and praise. It has meant regular appearances on television, both Russian state TV and the less wise of the mainstream news channels. For Beeley it has meant relocation to a country with better weather where she is feted as a hero by the state. For the others, throwing their lot in with these conspiracy theories and with foreign powers may well be a last gasp chance at glory.

For those of an especially disputatious nature, it has also brought a great, years-long fight — one in which, unlike in Syria proper, the only consequences are occasional notices of redundancy and the hot flush of annoyance upon being contradicted on the internet. 

It beats the modest rewards of honest work. And so we are left with the undignified spectacle of McKeigue conversing with ‘Ivan’, happy in the hope that he and this agent were helping each other. 

No wonder McKeigue appeared to treat ‘Ivan’s’ messages with little caution or scepticism; the Working Group has largely got what it wanted. Its members must hardly believe their luck. 

The Critic, March 30, 2021

Yemen’s Sham Ceasefire

Yemen’s civil war is commonly described – not without reason – as having given rise to this century’s worst humanitarian disaster. United Nations officials and national leaders condemn the killing it has seen, the displacement it has caused, and the hunger and disease its continuation has allowed to spread. Whenever they are asked, foreign politicians without a stake in events intone that a ‘political solution’ is necessary and that peace must be achieved through dialogue.

A little over a week ago, such a ceasefire was proposed. The foreign minister of Saudi Arabia, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, announced the planned break in fighting with optimism, proposing the reopening of the airport in Sana’a (the country’s capital, occupied by Houthi rebels) as a gesture of good faith and the beginning of new cooperation. Supplies of food and medicines could be on the first flight in. Shortages and privation might be reversed with the effort of all.

But the problem with the prince’s ceasefire is, at root, the same reason why you may not have heard of it. This ceasefire is not a deal; instead, it is the unilateral offer of one side of a civil conflict which has drawn in regional powers. Without agreement of the other, it has no chance of being accepted or coming into force.

The fact that this offer was made says rather less for peace and more for war. If someone wasn’t winning the war, no ceasefire would have been conceived. The Saudis are keen to extract themselves from Yemen after over five years of direct intervention in support of the internationally recognised government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. A ceasefire would give honourable cover to that withdrawal – if only it were credible.

Hadi and the Saudis are fighting Ansar Allah, as the Houthi movement is also known. The Houthis have been fighting this phase of the country’s civil conflict since 2014. They have not done so alone. Who has provided decisive international support for the Houthis is in no doubt – Ansar Allah is backed by Iran, equipped with Iranian weapons, and engaged in fighting Iran’s enemies.

The extent to which the Houthis are a project of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps remains fiercely disputed. A recent report by Oved Lobel convincingly argues that the Houthi movement is best understood as an outgrowth of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution: a pure expression of the revolution’s pan-national aspirations of ‘resistance’ against Israel, the United States, and their allies – one which has now been incorporated entirely into Iran’s international patchwork of proxy forces, inseparable from its goal of regional domination.

Assuming that this force would willingly conclude a peace deal seems straightforwardly naive. But even if the Houthis were inclined to consider peace, there is no chance they would seek it now. They are winning the war too obviously to justify that.

With Iranian weapons and support, Houthi forces are no longer insurgents. They possess large stretches of territory in Yemen’s populous west, including many of its major settlements. Houthi forces have controlled Sana’a, Yemen’s former capital, for years. They are entrenched in the western port of Hodeida and in the city of Ta’az. Next to fall will likely be Marib province, for which the Houthis have prepared and threatened a bloody offensive which is of a piece with the insurgency’s increasingly open brutality.

The southern port of Aden, a former British colony, remains in the hands of forces opposed to Houthi rule. But it is not beyond the Houthis’ reach. They possess the technology to attack targets far distant from their bases of operation.

In many ways this is the story of the war. The Houthis were largely opposed by nations like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates which have large air forces and make use of heavy bombing campaigns. These campaigns are carried out at great expense, and have elicited sustained international condemnation.

But the Houthis have their own long-range weapons, including Iranian-supplied missiles and drones, which they have used to attack not only targets in Yemen – the Houthis attempted to assassinate the entire Hadi cabinet at Aden airport in December – but also to bomb the Saudi capital of Riyadh and numerous sites of the Saudi oil economy. If this was done by ISIS, it would not only be considered terrorism; it would be the biggest story in the world.

Why would an insurgency seek peace when it is able to carry on its revolutionary war on such favourable terms?

Perhaps appreciating that Iran has managed to draw them deep into the quicksand, the Saudis are desperate to draw down their own intervention. Some in Yemen and America fear they would accept ‘peace’ at almost any price. But while Iranian support remains, it has become painfully clear that even a confected end to the fighting is unlikely. The Houthis will not cease their fire nor decrease their brutality willingly – and not when they feel they at last have the upper hand in this bloodiest of civil wars.

The Critic, April 1, 2021

Global Vessels

After a day or so of a ship being beached in the Suez Canal, blocking all other traffic from passing through, the broadcast news began to do the sort of vaguely connected interviews TV does best. Cameras and reporters searched Britain for the owners of businesses whose goods were currently on the Ever Given (the unfortunate vessel) or held up because it was stuck.

These people were then asked what it was like to be in such a strange position and being connected to something so out of the ordinary. And they, almost to a man, seemed both a little put out and rather confused. Everyone interviewed said that although they had been held up, their goods could probably wait, but that — given the ways of the world — they felt for those expecting medical necessities or perishables by cargo ship.

Each day the ship was grounded cost the global economy something in the region of £7 billion as queues of other transports piled up either side of the canal. Other ships bet that the canal would be closed for time they could not spare, prompting a mass of ships from either side to attempt their intended journeys by the old route of traversing the Cape of Good Hope.

When the Ever Given was freed there was rejoicing from the Canal Authority; they and others had expected weeks of tailback, billions of pounds of losses. All from a single accident which although possible — the canal is long and not easy to navigate — was hardly expected. ‘We managed to refloat the ship in record time. If such a crisis had occurred anywhere else in the world, it would have taken three months to be solved’, Osama Rabie, the head of the Suez Canal Authority, said. To take him at his word, what now looks like a minor incident could have been significantly worse.

Daily life and the world economy rely on shipping; yet only periodically does something snarl the system up enough to merit broad attention. This may attest to impressive cohesion in what is a cumbersome business, more dependent on fair winds and calm seas than lines of work where those terms are metaphorical. But it may also indicate entitlement and expectation among those who are dependent on the regular movement of cargo, but not aware of its more parlous aspects.

Regular users of ship tracking websites were treated to a series of pitiful spectacles in 2018 as ships desperately attempted to deliver their cargoes amid the disruption American and Chinese tariffs wrought to international trade. The Peak Pegasus, which carried 70,000 tonnes of American soya beans, at first streaked across the Pacific in August 2018 in the hope of arriving in China before tariffs were imposed.

But once tariffs came into force, scotching this rush, it floated around the ocean desultorily for almost a month before arriving in port, like a guest who fears he may be unwelcome hesitating for a moment upon the doorstep.

Force as well as economics can show up the somewhat rackety way goods and resources are still transported. Iranian naval vessels periodically threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf to all traffic, which would be a not insignificant challenge to the world’s supply of oil (of which a fifth travels through the strait) and natural gas. This is mainly posturing each time it is proposed, but prompts worried coverage every time nonetheless.

When Iran threatened individual tankers with boarding and internment in 2019, it fell to British naval vessels including HMS Montrose to warn off the interlopers and keep the shipping lanes open.

An international naval mission patrols the waters around Somalia for the same reason — to prevent the Horn of Africa’s pirates from seeing too many enticing and unguarded targets among the merchant shipping. Cargo ships are large and heavy. They are barely guarded, with crew sizes kept to a cost-effective minimum. Undefended, they would make easy marks for hijacking and hostage-taking.

In the South China Sea, interference with commercial vessels is an increasing fact of life. China has built a large navy and amassed a collection of hundreds of ‘fishing vessels’ to enforce its territorial claims, something which worries the Philippines to the point of seeking international arbitration and trying to scare these ships off with military flybys.

All of these examples prove something this modern Suez crisis also attests: that international trade, for all its pretence of seamlessness and regularity, is built upon the simultaneous operation of any number of moving parts, the unwelcome action of hostile forces notwithstanding.

For all the sophistication of the modern information economy, the stuff upon which international trade is built is a good deal cruder. As this week has shown, the successful running of world trade just as often relies upon packing things into standardised containers, placing them upon unwieldy behemoths of the sea, and trusting that enough will go well that they safely reach their intended destination.

The Critic, April 1, 2021

Jordan’s Coup that Wasn’t

The Kingdom of Jordan has had an uncharacteristically eventful weekend. It is a stable country by reputation: a reliable ally and friend. But for a few hours at least, it seemed as though King Abdullah II was about to be deposed. The state’s Jordan News Agency was at sixes and sevens, tweeting and then deleting a number of contrasting updates to the situation. As is often the case when something happens in a country few in the Anglosphere take little notice of, panic quickly reigned and then subsided just as quickly.

In the cold light of a new week, some things are clear. The king has not been overthrown. No coup has taken place. But what has happened instead is interesting in itself, and worthy of some examination.

The challenge to the state centres around the person of Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, the half-brother of Abdullah, who was briefly crown prince between their father’s death in 1999 and 2004, when the title was revoked. Hamzah is younger than his half-brother and is charismatic and reportedly well-liked. He may, at least in theory, have been a popular candidate for the throne if it were to become vacant by happenstance or contrivance.

Over the weekend, the BBC published a video of Hamzah, in which the former crown prince claimed he had been placed under house arrest for criticising the king – criticism Hamzah does not admit to offering.

Hamzah’s message was passed to the BBC by his lawyer, but itself included a number of attacks on the king and the state of the nation, including Jordan’s sluggish pandemic economy and the ‘breakdown in governance … corruption and … incompetence’. All this is hardly a defence for the charge of undermining the king’s government.

In a further bizarre turn of events, Hamzah released a new statement on Monday evening which stressed his commitment to ‘the constitution of the dear Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan’.

The authorities, meanwhile, have coalesced around a connected but more dramatic story: that the stability of the state was threatened, and that the security services had to sweep in to thwart an attempted subversion of the nation. Yusef Ahmed al-Hunait, the chief of staff, said via a statement that he had been asked to ‘stop movements and activities that were used to target the security and stability of Jordan’.

Officials did not acknowledge Hamzah’s arrest, but did admit to the raiding of his palace in Amman and the arrest of two of his aides, Sharif Hassan bin Zaid and Bassem Awadallah, along with up to 20 others.

Awadallah was once Jordan’s finance minister and head of the country’s royal court. He has written and spoken in the past of the need to modernise the economies of the Arab world. It is possible Awadallah’s region-spanning series of directorships and connections made him the conduit for what authorities now allege: that there was a coup attempt, a ‘malicious plot‘ far advanced, with unspecified backing from foreign powers.

As strange as these accusations seem, Jordan’s deputy prime minister claims that the security forces intercepted communications between the coup plotters and their foreign supporters. These supporters are widely believed to be the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Naturally, both countries have since joined with other Arab League states to offer their fulsome support to King Abdullah and his restoration of order. But they would say that, wouldn’t they? A coup attempt would hardly be out of character.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE would be the ideal candidates for a hare-brained coup attempt, real or imagined. Each have form in this area. The Saudis notably kidnapped the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, before having him resign his office from the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and give an extremely uncomfortable interview defending his decision – only to have him slip through their fingers and return to Lebanon through a series of diplomatic stunts. Whereas before he was disliked, Hariri enjoyed a brief spell of popularity after his return.

Perhaps the Saudis made another rash attempt to change the composition of a nearby government, only to have the whole scheme fall amusingly apart. It is too soon to be wholly certain. There is no evidence to speak of. More may well come out – perhaps even those intercepted messages. Or the whole thing could prove what some suggest: that it is a distraction fashioned from whole cloth. Whatever we learn in the coming days will no doubt be of interest to the entire Middle East region.

Jordan is an essential partner for the United States – not least because of its apparent stability – because it hosts over a million refugees from Syria and has a considered relationship with its neighbour, Israel. Although the interactions between Abdullah and prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel arrive at new degrees of frostiness every so often, Jordan does not rattle the sabre nor pledge undying resistance to Zionism.

The American writer Abe Silberstein wrote that ‘people don’t appreciate Jordan until it’s at risk’, which this situation certainly proves. When protests forced the resignation of Jordan’s prime minister in 2018, most foreigners reacted more in response to the surprise of the event than what it might have meant.

This week, as countries – which perhaps took solid Jordanian friendship for granted – rushed to reassure its king that he has their support, perhaps some of them also reflected on how the strength of the Hashemite monarchy is a precious thing – one which only gets its due in rare times of turmoil.

The Critic, April 6, 2021

Oxfam’s Heart of Darkness

Every year since 2018, or thereabouts, we have seen variations on a grim theme. Women in third world countries, the recipients of aid and charity, have accused aid workers of sexual abuse and exploitation, of rape and molestation.

Women have done so most recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Oxfam has suspended two of its staff in order to investigate predictably unpleasant allegations made against them. In February, The Times reports, Oxfam received a ten-page letter about its operations in the DRC, accusing eleven people and alleging sexual abuse and workplace bullying.

Oxfam has its own catalogue of horrors, and we will return to it; but for a moment I would like to say more about the DRC. That country has seen rather a lot of this particular grotesqueness. In September last year, it was reported that World Health Organisation workers in the DRC had operated a particular form of exploitation termed ‘sex for jobs’, in which they traded the scarce work in their gift for sex with locals.

Between 2018 and last year, during an epidemic of Ebola, aid workers are alleged to have exchanged those things they were meant to provide for their own gratification. Fifty-one women were included in this catalogue, each of them alleging a series of abuses. Thirty women specifically accused men who identified themselves as WHO staff.

After these accusations were concretely made, several aid organisations and charities – including UNICEF – launched internal enquiries.

In their promises to improve in future, there was a collective throwing up of the hands. Every spokesman said that they deplored these actions. They tacitly acknowledged that these were not only perversions of the purported work of these organisations – they also tarnished everything done by those aid agencies in country, coming as it does from the hands of the abusers.

Agencies acknowledged that these crimes are often committed; that mechanisms for their reporting do not work; and that the prospect of punishment or justice finding the criminals is close to nil. These facts are stubborn. Very little can be done to change them.

Returning to Oxfam, we have the defining incidents of this series of scandals. In 2010, after the terrible earthquake in Haiti, senior members of Oxfam’s staff including its Haiti director of operations, Roland Van Hauwermeiren, were alleged to have preyed upon the survivors. They were first accused of having made prostitutes of the Haitian locals, paying them for sex. Some of those locals were allegedly children, which makes what follows all the more galling. (In 2006 in Chad, it later emerged, exactly the same thing was alleged to have happened, again led by Van Hauwermeiren.)

After hearing of these accusations in 2011, Oxfam actively hid them from public view. It took until 2018 for reporting in The Times and elsewhere to acknowledge the story. In the meantime, four of the alleged perpetrators, including Van Hauwermeiren, were encouraged to resign quietly. All this in the hope of defending the charity’s reputation rather than attempting to reckon with its sins.

In 2018 Oxfam released a heavily redacted version of its 2011 report, noting not only the allegations against these and other men, but also extensive corroboration. All of this was kept from the public for seven years, and from the Charity Commission for as long. After years of conscious concealment and deceit, and after the crimes themselves, Oxfam tried pathetically to spin the report as an exercise in honesty and learning lessons.

‘However difficult it is to meet the demands of transparency, and however hard it is to confront mistakes of the past, we believe that ultimately, this will help us take meaningful action and become more effective’, its copy held.

As pathetic as this read in 2018, it seems disingenuous and wicked now. That same year, The Sunday Times reported of over a hundred individual complaints of sexual abuse against workers for British charities. The Charity Commission report in 2019 found that not only did Oxfam conceal and lie for all it was worth; it also pointedly ‘failed to act‘ on reports that its staff were abusing girls in Haiti. It acted as though complainants, including children, were liars, and its staff were upstanding people wrongly accused.

Anyone who has dealt with aid workers knows that while many are good and decent, some are decidedly not. The latter live as though they are acting out a passion play with themselves cast as lead. Being in situations of strain and peril is not a sacrifice for them, but rather something to which they are temperamentally suited.

Indeed, for the abusers above, the rough living justifies exploitation of others, with the difficulty of conditions serving as an excuse for a form of self-medication with moral depravity. Such people think of those they are nominally in country to help as a mass which they can exploit and use for their own gratification. Perhaps all this is justified by the good they believe they are doing. Perhaps, to such people, their actions need no justification.

The New Humanitarian has diligently reported on accusations against aid workers and peacekeeping forces which have been made for 25 years. It is a story which seems to recur with depressing inevitability.

There has been a little attempted defence of these people and what they did.

Some, like the academic Mary Beard, mused whether the boundaries of civilisation broke down in trying circumstances like these. As if each aid worker was his own Kurtz, driven mad by the darkness of the abyss into which each stared. But these are not individual lapses and small instances of evil set against worse circumstances. They are crimes contrary to the policies of the organisations to which these men belong; crimes which were hushed up by higher-ups in the hope of not scaring away donors, and to allow the organisations in question continued access to scenes of disaster and strife.

And they will keep happening, again and again, often successfully concealed, with some of these stories appearing in the papers up to eight years later: possibly horrifying their readers just enough to reconsider their next donation.

The Critic, April 8, 2021

War Records

Prince Philip, who has died aged 99, was a navy man. It is something his obituarists all mention. They note his passage into the Royal Navy after a rackety childhood and Gordonstoun. How he was an able cadet at Dartmouth, the top cadet of his course, and that by the time he married the then-Princess Elizabeth in 1947 he was a confident and handsome first lieutenant, whose wishes to continue his naval career were later ended by her ascent to the throne. He kept a model of HMS Magpie, his first command, in his office in Buckingham Palace in the decades that followed.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s wartime service, meanwhile, has occupied a more equivocal place. When he was first married, veterans of the Second World War were everywhere, and war service was hardly a golden ticket or a thing to boast about. It was possible, as the duke settled into supporting role as consort, to think of his naval years as having supplied him his proud military bearing, the dash to carry off appearing in public in uniform, and the opportunity to meet a princess.

The duke’s wartime service was noble in the same way that the service of millions of British, Empire and Commonwealth men under arms was. And in seeing action, and in his actions under fire, Philip won respect and notice of his own. A midshipman aboard HMS Valiant at the battle of Cape Matapan in January 1940, his control of the ship’s searchlights during a night action, illuminating Italian cruisers which were swiftly destroyed, saw Philip mentioned in dispatches.

Later, after being appointed lieutenant in 1942, Philip supported the Allied landings in Sicily the following year, aboard HMS Wallace. He was a first lieutenant at 21. By chance, he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in August 1945. His naval adventures are the stories of a young man, something to which he was unable to attach a long career in command.

In his later years, these wartime stories became easier to tell and were more eagerly received. One story of Philip’s time aboard Wallace appeared in a shipmate’s memoir in 1999, and was first publicly repeated in the Observer in 2003. Harry Hargreaves, who was then 85, spoke to the newspaper about an episode which took place during the invasion, which he first explained to the BBC.

Wallace was under sustained attack by German aircraft during the Sicily campaign. To the BBC, Hargreaves said: ‘It was obvious that we were the target for tonight and they would not stop until we had suffered a fatal hit.’

‘It was less than five minutes after the aircraft had departed and … we had about 20 minutes to come up with something. We couldn’t steam far in that time, not even far enough to make the aircraft think we had moved.’

He described how the first lieutenant, after ‘hurried conversation’ with the captain, conceived of a decoy. The crew assembled and dispatched a raft, with smoking floats attached at each end. It was intended to mimic floating, flaming debris. The ship then sped ahead before cutting its power, hoping to remain unnoticed. When the aircraft returned, it avoided the silent ship, instead bombing the raft to pieces before departing.

‘Prince Philip saved our lives that night. I suppose there might have been a few survivors, but certainly the ship would have been sunk. He was always very courageous and resourceful and thought very quickly’, Hargreaves told the Observer.

By this time, there was a place for stories like this. Philip’s public image had solidified into a one of a vigorous elderly relation – a cantankerous and amusing fixture of ceremonies, and a dutiful companion to his wife. By the turn of the millennium, as the wartime generation began to die out, stories of his heroism could prove a warm addition to his public image, a reminder of golden years; and allow him to serve as a representative of and living monument to a generation of civilian soldiers to whom the country owed so much, who were now disappearing from view.

Later still, as Philip reached a great age, he survived much of the wartime generation who constructed the world of the past seventy years. To those born at or after the end of the twentieth century, the duke became an award and a stranger, remote from modern life, his life and formative years hard to understand. His immense age made him doubly unknowable. The war in which he fought became a distant memory of those born after it.

The war holds an unmatched place in the British identity. But over time this has become a simple story barely fitting the lives of its participants. The ideals attached to its cherished image became more difficult to comprehend, let alone embody. Good triumphed over evil, but the business of war itself hardly occupies the mind.

Contemporary stories of the Second World War, like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, hardly show the enemy. Its protagonists barely fire a weapon or raise a fist in anger. The war has become a cipher, its essential aspect being the difficulty of staying alive amid flying metal and high explosive. The hope of all is to survive a war rather than to fight it.

Philip not only served in the war; he fought in it – a remote concept in a county whose wars are distant, losing, and fought by a shrinking number of professionals.

How Philip will be remembered remains in question. For the moment the Queen’s grief for her husband covers all polite discussion. But no doubt stories of his war have their place, and will be heard by some now for the first time – a relic of an unknown and barely imaginable past, now almost gone.

The Critic, April 10, 2021

Iran’s Nuclear Conspiracy Theories

Attempts to interrupt Iran’s nuclear proliferation are not uncommon, but they can often be made to sound more exciting than they really are. There seems to have been another effort over the weekend with an attack on the Iranian nuclear facility at Nantaz.

The Iranian state has claimed that there was ‘sabotage’ of the facility and vowed – as if it would say otherwise – to continue enriching uranium. But as in the case of another recent attack on Iran’s nuclear programme, once the basic facts of the operation are dealt with, the signal is given for the narrative to fly completely off the rails.

We will return to Nantaz, but I would first like to address another example of this trend. In November last year, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, an Iranian nuclear scientist, was assassinated in Tehran, allegedly by Israeli agents. At first, after the usual mourning and vows of revenge, the Iranian state and its media suggested that Fakhrizadeh was killed in a conventional fashion, by a team of infiltrators armed with explosives and guns.

But this story could not last. That explanation served no political purpose. It did not portray Israel as a threatening, usurping entity, but rather one whose special forces were simply good at their jobs.

This would never do. So, instead of this dull explanation, Iran has successively updated its official theories of the attack, each time making the story more dramatic and far-fetched. First, Iran suggested that Israel had rigged up a machine-gun turret to a Nissan which, upon being activated by remote control, shot at the scientist’s car, drawing him out to investigate; then sprayed Fakhrizadeh with automatic fire, killing him. His car finally exploded seconds later. According to Iran, none of the scientist’s assassins were even in the vicinity.

‘The operation was very complex and took place using electronic devices, and no one was present at the scene,’ said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s supreme national security council, at the time of Fakhrizadeh’s funeral. He also lumped in the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK), suggesting this group was also responsible. MEK is an exiled Iranian cult which has a history of terrorist violence, but no connection to this attack.

Not long after, the story was adapted again: this time the deputy commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, Ali Fadavi, told the press that the attack was directed by satellite and carried off using artificial intelligence.

One must note that each time they were made, these elaborations were reported not only by Iranian state media, but also by newspapers across the world. Possibly the foreign journalists reporting each development believed this embroidery. Or perhaps they thought its entertainment value overrode its likely untruthfulness.

Remember that example when considering what is alleged to have happened at Natanz. The Iranian state first declared an ‘accident‘ at the uranium enrichment facility just as its new centrifuges were started, and as the broader Iranian bid for a nuclear weapon began a new stage. Then, ‘sabotage’. Then, Iran promised, as is its way, ‘revenge‘.

An Iranian spokesman was later declared injured because he went back to inspect the site of the explosion and fell through a hole created or covered up by the blast.

But Iran would not settle for simply writing this off as an act of ordinary sabotage, a physical raid which blew up its facility’s internal power system, even after state media declared that it had got a hold of the person responsible.

Iran instead maintains that the blackout was caused by a mysterious ‘cyberattack’ – something which was eagerly reported upon by the international press. The Guardian went so far as to suggest that Israel, which never acknowledges these operations, had in effect confirmed the cyberattack story. This seems distinctly unlikely.

This is par for the course: Iran suffers a minor blow to its nuclear ambitions, then expands the incident into a real rhetorical outrage, full of excitement, before vowing elaborate but indeterminate revenge which never transpires. It then continues enriching uranium and building ballistic missiles exactly as before.

Optimistic Israeli estimates suggest that the attack might delay Iran’s enrichment of uranium by nine months – not an insuperable length of time. Israeli generals like to overestimate the damage they have done to Iran’s nuclear programme in each one of these operations. I suppose it makes them feel a little safer.

For all of Israel’s ability and willingness to attack Iran’s nuclear programme and its scientists, nothing is ever halted by these operations. They only ever seem to delay the inevitable and terrifying day when a state which has vowed to blast Israel from the surface of the earth builds its first nuclear bomb a little into the future.

And no story of extraordinary subterfuge or Mossad infiltration, or AI-inflected guns controlled by satellite, will have the slightest effect on that fact.

Israel and Iran co-operate in the creation of these exciting stories. Israel by mounting operations and refusing to comment on them officially; Iran by inventing out of whole cloth fantastical elements to excuse its failure to detect and defeat ordinary tradecraft.

Both conspire to tell these stories rather than the dull ones, which insist that a bomb is still coming – just not quite yet.

The Critic, April 12, 2021

Is America Really Back?

When, on Tuesday, the American secretary of defence Lloyd Austin announced that 500 more American troops would be sent to Germany, a tacit intention of his speech was to convince observers that a terrible thing had been averted in the nick of time.

It was the policy of the Trump years to withdraw many US forces from their German bases; and under Donald Trump’s successor Joe Biden, this has been reversed. Now those Americans based in Germany will stay there, joined by a few hundred others.

The Trump years were unquietly unfocused and chaotic, with foreign and military policy characterised by snap decisions and the abrupt cancelling of decades-long American commitments to their friends. Democrats claimed this was a gesture not only of Trump’s unseriousness in governing, but also an invitation for aggressive powers like Russia to menace America’s newly unprotected European allies.

Biden’s intention is to mark an end to this incoherence, with the extra soldiers as icing on the cake. Some have been taken in, and have rejoiced in what all this is intended to mean: the presidency has changed hands. US commitments will now be honoured. America is back.

Compare this to Biden’s speech on Wednesday night, in which the president announced a complete, unconditional American withdrawal from Afghanistan. It was a model of irresolution. Biden framed his desire to evacuate all American forces by September 11 as his ending of America’s ‘longest war’, and also deprecated the logic of a continued American troop presence in the country, while simultaneously suggesting that in any case, his hands were tied by an agreement made between his predecessor and the Taliban.

America has, at present, only 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, as well as a few thousand special forces whose numbers are not declared. This is a great distance from the 100,000 troops who were deployed during the surge, which came under Barack Obama and Biden.

‘We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result’, Biden said. Afghanistan cannot be made better; the time to disengage is now. Implicitly, it would have been better to have done so earlier.

Biden claimed that although America’s military presence will end decisively, broader American influence would somehow still be felt. He promised, hollowly, that the rights of women and girls would be protected by American humanitarian assistance. Biden leant rather heavily on the idea that under American tutelage, Afghanistan’s own military has grown in strength and competence, and that its soldiers would fight to defend the state in America’s absence.

The road will not be easy. Within Afghan territory exist not only a parallel state run by a still-violent Taliban but also a significant foreign province of the Islamic State, which has perpetrated a number of terrorist attacks which have shocked many in even as jaded a nation as Afghanistan. When the Taliban signed a deal with the United States under Trump, it agreed to stop fighting the Americans but not the Afghan state. That war continues, and will continue for as long as the Taliban desires.

For a glimpse of the future for Afghanistan, one need only examine what Helmand province currently resembles. Fazelminallah Qazizai reports for Newlines magazine on a Taliban emirate which is already assembled and untroubled by American influence. He writes of Sangin, a city where the Parachute Regiment was defeated by insurgents, and which fell to the Taliban in 2017.

In Sangin, the Taliban has entrenched itself in bunkers but also in daily life. To own a weapon (hardly uncommon in Afghanistan), or a telephone, or to download a messaging app, one needs a document from the emirate’s rulers. ‘No schools are open, with boys of all ages and prepubescent girls allowed to attend madrassas only,’ Qazizai writes. No American ‘humanitarian mission’ could return those girls to school.

Afghan politicians are currently scrambling to save the country from the resumption in violence which they see as inevitable, and for which the Taliban has long planned, to begin the second the Americans leave for good.

In recent weeks, Afghanistan’s president Ashraf Ghani has made some failed overtures to the Taliban about potential cooperation. He wishes to talk not only of peace, but of free and fair elections.

All of these things have been rejected because the Taliban knows that it has time on its side and a position which has become progressively stronger over the past four years, as American troop numbers have dwindled and successive presidents have searched in vain for the door.

The Taliban has begun to govern the areas the government and its international backers have vacated almost as if the country was never invaded in 2001. While Biden may believe he is simply ending a war, revoking American involvement in Afghanistan risks a reversion to the bad old days of internal civil conflict and austere religious rule.

Biden knows his withdrawal needs only a patina of military sense to be broadly popular. All of the most terrible threats of Taliban rule remain, and will return; Americans just no longer care. An American withdrawal will not end the fighting — just America’s participation. For many in the States, that remains all there is to it.

Compare this to Germany, which does not need more American troops. Russia has alarmed many democratic countries by building up its forces on the Ukrainian border. European leaders now openly speculate whether Ukraine will once again by invaded by Russian forces or their surrogates as we enter a season more suited to a military campaign.

It is unclear what 500 more Americans are expected to do about that invasion, if it comes.

Biden wants his foreign policy to be one of American restoration, a return not only to normalcy, but to global leadership. But so far, he has done what is showy and politically easy rather than those things that are hard and necessary. And the people of Afghanistan will suffer for that failure.

The Critic, April 15, 2021

The Rise and Fall of Bernie Madoff

The audacity of Bernie Madoff’s fraud could perhaps have been glimpsed in how Madoff held himself in the years before his Ponzi scheme collapsed in 2008.

Madoff dressed well and moved in moneyed circles. His manner was private, but he lived in the rich man’s world of Palm Beach and New York’s Hamptons. Madoff owned a yacht. His investment firm maintained expensive, modern premises in a tower, the Lipstick Building, in Manhattan, and kept offices abroad. He held a series of seats on the boards of major companies and was at one time non-executive chairman of the NASDAQ stock market.

He was respectable. Madoff carried himself like a patrician, rich and superior. He was capable of great cordiality and used it to great effect greasing wheels. Madoff dabbled in philanthropy which was designed to look unshowy while leaving an impression of positivity in the minds of those who saw it.

But all of this was built on fraud and lies. His entire life was an act of deception. It was a great confidence trick, built on the assured appearances of wealth and success, with Madoff playing a role – part financial genius, part dull money man. This fraud would have strained a man who saw his clients as people worthy of fair treatment and respect. But there was little of that to be gleaned from Madoff’s sometimes smiling – but often expressionless – face.

At the time of his exposure, Madoff had run an investment firm whose returns had not been legitimate for over thirty years. He had defrauded thousands of investors of up to $64 billion, a good proportion of which were fictitious profits he claimed to have earnt, but which in fact never existed.

Instead of investing in anything, Madoff had simply spent his clients’ money and used new money from fresh clients to cover the withdrawals of the old. If this weighed on his conscience, he didn’t show it. He was an archetypal grey man among a sea of them – a known quantity in New York’s financial world.

Madoff courted the well-to-do and the sophisticated investor. He relied upon his victims to recommend his services to their friends, impressed by his unerringly consistent returns. He took the money they offered to him without fuss, accepting their gratitude, assuring them by his apparent exclusivity that it was he who was doing them a favour.

In interviews held after he was imprisoned, Madoff refused to say that he was sorry. He maintained that his investors knew what they were doing; and his few defenders were keen to say that some of them still made money from the scheme.

Like Harry Markopolos – the whistleblower who tried for almost a decade to tip off the Securities and Exchange Commission that something was not right at Madoff Investment Securities – Madoff himself blamed the regulators. They were too stupid to catch him, he said to interviewers. They didn’t really know his business.

Stupid they might have been but, when Madoff was under investigation, he went to great lengths to lie to the authorities. When an investigator asked to see the sort of documents a legitimate firm would have to hand, Madoff’s people stalled for time while upstairs, a fake document was first drawn up, then printed, and then chilled in a fridge and crumpled a little to give it the phony appearance of age and use.

Madoff’s scheme deprived thousands of people of their life savings. It denied many of them the opportunity to retire. Madoff ruined many lives and likely prematurely ended a few – including the life of his son Mark, who committed suicide in 2010 on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest.

In prison, Madoff was unrepentant. When journalists interviewed him in jail, he preferred to talk up the conditions of his imprisonment than dwell on those he had defrauded. The doors to his cell ‘are not locked at night’, he told a true crime podcast. ‘I have a pretty big picture window.’

Because people gave him money of their own volition, and no one caught him for so long, Madoff perhaps thought he deserved the money more than them. It is certainly how he acted. His victims should have known what they were getting into, he said. They deserved everything they got, he may have thought.

This ignores the great distance Madoff and his associates travelled into deceit. They lied and dissembled to protect their fraud; they fought the investigations of the authorities until, amid the financial crash, Madoff knew the game was lost. He handed himself in not out of charity – not to give the authorities a sporting chance – but because he could no longer conceal the depth of his fraud.

Madoff lived his final decade in prison without apology or second thought. Everyone who interviewed him from jail seemed sure he had no regrets. Madoff had wanted to be a success in a culture which cherishes both the trappings of gentility and the hustle. That desire, and contempt for the people he could defraud, brought him great wealth at the expense of others and, finally, death in a prison infirmary.

The Critic, April 16, 2021

Unit 29155

Connoisseurs of a certain kind of bare-faced espionage have certainly enjoyed the last couple of days. They like it when faces or institutions, associated with other stories, reappear. In this case, the Czech Republic has expelled 18 Russian diplomats in retaliation for bombings in 2014 which targeted munitions factories in the country and killed two civilians. You may have seen the faces of the alleged culprits before.

They are Alexander Mishkin and Anatoly Chepiga, the two men alleged to have poisoned Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury in March 2018. They arrived in London under the names Ruslan Boshirov and Alexander Petrov and claimed later to have visited Salisbury twice, not to attempt assassination, but to gaze upon the cathedral’s notable spire.

They were swiftly identified as Russian assets but it took years of work to fill in some of the gaps. The open-source investigators at Bellingcat, working in tandem with independent Russian media, including The Insider, were able to pin down the military records of both Mishkin and Chepiga, and to uncover the barest facts about the unit they both served with, Unit 29155 of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.

In the years since, Unit 29155 has been accused of the attempted assassination of the arms dealer Emilian Gebrev in Sofia in 2015. It appears to exist to provide small teams of operatives who travel around Europe for acts of assassination, sabotage and subversion. In both the case of Gebrev and the Skripals, the unit has used poisons — holdovers of the chemical and biological weapons programmes of the Soviet Union.

Bellingcat identified eight seeming members of Unit 29155 who travelled to Bulgaria in the months before Gebrev was poisoned. This and the investigation surrounding the Skripal case gives some understanding of its organising structure and intentions.

Chepiga is a colonel in the GRU whom investigators believe fought in the second Chechen war and the hybrid conflict between Russia and Ukraine which has mired Ukraine from 2014. He was awarded the status of Hero of the Russian Federation — previously it was assumed for his time in Ukraine; but now it is possible that this was for the Czech bombings. Some investigators have him pegged as the ‘hit-man’ in Salisbury.

Mishkin meanwhile, is of the same rank as Chepiga, but he is also a military doctor, who studied at the S. M. Kirov Military Medical Academy. It is presumed by investigators that he handled the nerve agent — preserving the safety of the assassins while trying to ensure the death of their target. As it happened, Sergei Skripal survived — although a civilian who encountered the nerve agent by accident, Dawn Sturgess, later died. Mishkin is also a Hero of the Russian Federation.

The two men were ‘run’ by a third man — the apparent controller of the operation. He is Denis Sergeev, who travelled under the alias of Sergey Fedotov. During the assassination attempt, Sergeev remained in contact with the team in Salisbury by phone. He also placed continual calls to the number in Moscow assumed by investigators to be a generic contact for agents in the field to communicate with GRU centre.

As more details have emerged about the bombings in the Czech Republic, the same patterns of operation have been found. The eight who spied out the land in Bulgaria before the attempted poisoning of Gebrev follow the same rough organising principles adhered to by the Skripal poisoners. When Mishkin and Chepiga travelled around the Czech Republic prior to the bombing, they appear to have reconnoitred the ground in the same way as Salisbury before enacting their plan for sabotage.

Some espionage writers associate the unit with attempts at subversion in the Balkans. And the Biden administration in America has also alleged that Unit 29155 are behind the much reviled ‘bounties‘ placed by Russia on American troops in Afghanistan, paid to the Taliban per Americans killed. The evidence for this seems a little shaky, and in any case, it is not in the public domain.

But from what we do know of the movements of this group, it is a remarkable challenge to the free nations of Europe: a series of cells of assassins and saboteurs has been able to travel freely across the continent for at least five years, killing and bombing, often using the same assumed names or variations on a theme; and they have never been stopped or caught — only identified in hindsight.

There is little reason to hope exposure of the unit and its methods will do much to change the nature of this outrages.

Even if Unit 29155 is deemed no longer watertight and is wound up; if all of its operatives are retired or farmed out, their names removed from the walls of honour and school yearbooks from which they were identified; more teams either exist or can be created. The attacks themselves could easily continue.

As amusing as it is for the connoisseurs and the readers of spy novels, this represents a remarkable failure of counterintelligence and politics, going back many years. When this campaign of murder and sabotage has worked for so long, there is little pleasure to be found in its details becoming public knowledge. Identification of the participants and their methods, even in the most elaborately clever ways, could well prove false consolation in the face of something far more worrying.

The Critic, April 20, 2021

Front Line Dictator

Surprise was the natural reaction upon hearing the news on April 20, that the long-standing president of Chad, Idriss Deby Itno, had been killed on the front lines of his country’s war with the rebel Front for Change and Concord in Chad (FACT) militia group.

Deby had been in power for thirty years and had just won another election, his sixth, according to provisional results released the previous day. The election had taken place on the same day as the FACT rebels took over some garrison towns and began to march on the capital, N’Djamena, advancing hundreds of miles. The Chadian military said it had repelled a rebel column, but the United States was beginning to close its embassy, and the Foreign Office advice held that all British nationals should urgently leave the country.

Government spokesmen suggested that Deby, a former general and recently promoted honorary field marshal, had foregone delivering a victory speech in the election to be with his troops, and later that he had died of gunshot wounds at the front with the men. Details are murky, and when Deby received his wounds, and where he died, are still in question. Deby was a life-long military man. He took power in a coup in 1990. And he keenly enjoyed leading his forces, fighting off numerous rebellions and attempted coups, most recently in 2019.

The shock of Deby’s death, and the advancing rebels, have thrown Chad into profound chaos matched by an institutional scramble. Formalising the election was swiftly abandoned, and Deby was succeeded by his son, the 37-year-old general Mahamat Deby Itno, at the head of a hastily convened Military Transitional Council. Parliament was dissolved.

Despite the relative frequency with which insurgencies and rebellions seemed to emerge during the Deby years, Chad was a largely stable state and a regional military power. Under Deby, the revenues from Chad’s oil industry went to maintain the armed forces, and Deby was reputed to have spent money from the World Bank on military helicopters.

Chad’s armed forces featured in interventions in neighbouring states including the Central African Republic. It serves at the head of the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF) — an alliance including Niger, Nigeria, Benin, and Cameroon — which is fighting the pan-national Islamist terrorists of Boko Haram. Chad’s armed forces contributed troops to France’s 2013 campaign in Mali, Operation Serval, which defeated jihadist forces attempting to take the country over.

In France’s subsequent campaign across the Sahel against Islamists, it has based thousands of troops in Chad, a former colony. As France’s Sahel campaign has run into difficulty, the mantle has partially been taken up by the United States. Both countries depend upon a stable Chad and its armed forces to base their troops and support their operations against terrorists and rebels region-wide.

With Deby dead and the situation in Chad appearing close to collapse, a certain kind of restrained panic has broken out in western capitals. Diplomats speculate to Reuters that the naming of Deby’s son as interim leader is meant to reassure them that the military has things in hand. But in fact, they say, it creates the opposite impression: that the constitution has already been thrown out, that a coup is underway, and that the continuation of the Deby dynasty appears to suggest less a firm grip on power than an impulsive lunge for it.

This may be idle, overheated talk. But for the moment, people in N’Djamena, fearing the worst, don’t appear to be venturing outside.

It is possible that France and the United States may be drawn into attempting to stabilise things — even by preventing FACT rebels from taking the capital, if it comes to that. France attacked a rebel convoy in 2019, with the Chadian military’s permission.

This is all a little awkward for France, however. It’s possibly a consequence of France’s own decisions that the rebel group appeared when it did. FACT is a sometime-opponent, sometime-ally of the Libyan National Army and its leader Khalifa Haftar, France’s favoured warlord in the Libyan civil war. At the moment, the LNA and FACT appear to be in alliance. Without Haftar’s backing, FACT could not maintain its Libyan bases. Without those bases, FACT could neither have bidden its time nor crossed the border into Chad with such determination.

The Americans, meanwhile, are having some difficulties of their own. In an official statement mourning Deby’s death, the United States offered unsubtle hints that he must be followed by “a peaceful transition of power in accordance with the Chadian constitution”.

Deby was a dictator at the head of one of the most corrupt countries in the world. He was useful to the West because of his country’s strong military, and his own seeming adeptness in commanding it. 

Without him, Chad seems all the weaker. If the state is either overtaken by rebels, or usurped in a dynastic or military coup, Chad’s past stability counts for nothing — its strong military either serving a new and unwelcome master or dissolving into chaos and dysfunction as the state reels and buckles.

France and the United States are on edge. They need Chad to survive this reversal. Without it, their variable campaigns against Islamism across the Sahel, against Boko Haram in particular, may very soon be shot to pieces. This is the worst possible result of an impulsive trip to the front by an eager old general keen to experience, once again, the smell of cordite. 

The Critic, April 22, 2021

Afghanistan Outsourced

If outsourcing has become inevitable in commerce, we cannot be surprised that it has found its place in government. In matters of national security especially, it can be of use to rely less on soldiers than on mercenaries. Russia makes extensive use of the Wagner Group, mercenaries who operate with the state’s approval in Middle Eastern and African battlefields, doing dirty work in a deniable fashion.

For the United States, the reasons to use mercenaries and other workers (collectively termed ‘contractors’ by the Department of Defense) are numerous if a little abstract.

Contractors can be armed and unarmed. The unarmed can occupy bureaucratic positions, supplementing less sophisticated local operations. They can run logistics and maintenance – jobs which would look like rather a lot like a military occupation if foreign soldiers were doing them. 

The armed men, meanwhile, can be used to do the mundane security work in which American troops may be poorly placed. Their movements are also less politically sensitive than deploying soldiers in uniform. The presence of contractors in foreign lands is less ‘boots on the ground’ than the equivalent of a private client hiring more admin and security. Contractors can be trained less rigorously and more quickly than soldiers. Their numbers can be surged largely without public notice. They have low standards of fitness – physical or psychological – to meet and maintain. Their numbers are not tracked by the Congress.

All this makes contractors an extremely convenient crutch, one on which the American war machine often leant. During the Obama years, the ratio of contractors to members of the US military in active service rose to roughly three to one.

In Afghanistan, the formal American troop presence is many times dwarfed by the numbers of contractors also present in the country. By 2016 in Afghanistan, 75 per cent of the American presence in the country was contracted. By now, there are 2,500 declared American soldiers in Afghanistan – compared to over 16,800 contractors, down from 18,000.

The contractors do much of the mundane security work in the country, and although they take fewer casualties than the soldiers, they are engaged in vital work pertinent to the continued security of Afghanistan. Without contractors, some have argued, the nascent Afghan air force could not fly, let alone fight. The country may be overrun by the Taliban and ISIS even more rapidly than feared, if Kabul’s struggling government is to be deprived of this auxiliary support.

An American watchdog even suggested that the wholesale removal of contractors could cripple the Afghan government and security apparatus – even more than the withdrawal of the rump of American soldiers who are left in the country. Contractors run supply chains for Afghan forces, maintain complex equipment, and stand in to train local forces. If they were to disappear, the system of defence run centrally from Kabul may collapse almost immediately. 

After Joe Biden declared last week that the United States will soon quit Afghanistan, the way forward for America’s thousands of contractors remains in question. America has been unclear as to whether the contractors would continue in their current work, or will be withdrawn along with its troops before 11 September.

Reports conflict. Perhaps the contractors may be kept – around to provide security for US bases and embassies, as well as government ministries in Kabul. They may prove to be useful foot soldiers in the humanitarian missions that the Biden administration believes it will continue to mount in Afghanistan. But these exist as only the vaguest plans at present. It’s possible they exist only on paper, fig leaves covering an abrupt exit to be succeeded by close to nothing of value.

The Pentagon feeds this uncertainty even while it claims to want to repatriate contractors and soldiers alike. John Kirby, the department of defence’s press secretary, said on Friday: ‘There are preliminary plans that are being revised to extract contractors with military personnel. Clearly the goal is to get all our personnel out, and I suspect that contractors will be part of that.’ 

But nothing can be forecast completely. It is possible they may be withdrawn entirely – not least because contractors have caused very many problems for America in Afghanistan and Iraq. The deaths of contractors forced America’s hand before the battle of Fallujah in Iraq. And Donald Trump’s recent pardon of four contractors who killed civilians in at Nisour Square in 2007 was met with burning outrage in Iraq.

‘Whether there’ll still be a need for some contractor support, I just don’t know’, Kirby said of Afghanistan after America leaves. ‘We don’t have that level of detail right now.’

Biden finds himself in an uncomfortable position. If the troops are withdrawn but not the contractors, he will be found to have barely kept his promises. But if the troops and the contractors leave together, Afghanistan itself will be left almost completely exposed. Although if the United States cared too much about that, it would not be withdrawing at all.

The Critic, April 27, 2021

The Bid to Stabilise Mali

British troops have begun operations in Mali as part of a United Nations mission to counter jihadist groups in the country. UK forces began arriving in February and have, with BBC cameras in tow, started their long-range patrols of the country’s sparse regions. The way the cameras captured it, those involved in these initial patrols seem confident, but also a little uneasy.

That’s no wonder. Mali is in a difficult spot. The weak central government is protected by a multinational force from Islamist threats which gather around. In 2013, the Islamists swept through the country, capturing and burning Timbuktu, imperilling the survival of the state.

Mali survived thanks to a French intervention which continues to this day and a multifarious coalition of African Union members, UN peacekeepers and reluctant, inevitable American assistance. These forces may play well together but they are seemingly all deficient in ways which are as debilitating as they are individual.

France is unpopular and overstretched, trying to run a counter-terrorism campaign across the Sahel region while backing a marauding warlord in Libya and attempting to reshape the entire Arab Mediterranean. The United States is a weary Atlas, picking up where France falls and occasionally falling victim itself to nasty ambushes and outmanoeuvres from resourceful enemies.

The African nations are often keen to police their neighbours, but are prone to domestic distraction and chaos, and in many cases lack the hardware and training to make a decisive difference.

Into this maelstrom the UN mission, with all its baggage, is thrust. It’s termed MINUSMA – the UN’s Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation mission in Mali. Created after the Islamist tide swept forward in 2013, its exact dimensions are a little difficult to establish.

The Ministry of Defence is nominally quite clear about what British forces will be doing. It stresses the two regiments currently deployed will be engaged not in a ‘combat’ or ‘counter-terrorism’ capacity, but instead for ‘reconnaissance’ and the mounting of patrols. It stresses the long range and speed of the Jackal vehicles those deployed will be using.

The MoD again: the UN mission will ‘support local political efforts to build sustainable long-term peace’. This means that ‘Peacekeepers protect civilian populations, support political dialogue and reconciliation, prevent and reduce conflict, as well as promote and protect human rights’.

Make of that what you can.

‘Combat is not the objective’, the MoD says – hence the speed and manoeuvrability of the vehicles, one imagines.

Whatever the above says, it does not take a fantastic memory to recall than in Afghanistan and Iraq, a good deal of what British forces did included patrols into local areas, and attempts to win the trust of local leaders. It involved the same efforts at reconciliation and bridge-building which the UN mission in Mali now claims.

Both involved travelling out into the country, moving between the sparser spaces in which terrorist groups operate, attempting to convince local leaders that the international forces are worth trusting and will be there tomorrow. But Afghanistan was a counter-terror war, with an offensive capacity.

How doing these patrols from Jackals in Mali differs from doing them on foot in Afghanistan – that has not been entirely well-established.

The UK mission in Mali begins at a tense time. The region is in an uproar. The president of Chad has just died in battle. Islamist forces are building and surging and swirling around. They are no idle problem. The broader trend of Islamist violence in the area has included two unpleasant attacks, including on foreigners, in Burkina Faso in just the past few weeks. The Islamists in Mali have employed the same tactics. Olivier Dubois, a French journalist kidnapped in the country in April by an Islamist group, has this week appeared in a video released by his captors, begging for his life.

UN peacekeeping missions never seem less helpful when confronted with a surging enemy being fought largely by other people.

The war in Mali is a mess, one that is being addressed piecemeal and increasingly reluctantly by the French and the Americans. It is a fractious situation into which the UN mission awkwardly fits.

French and American forces do long-range patrols of their own, of course – although those patrols are not exclusively ‘reconnaissance’; they do not forestall the possibility of combat as the UN mission must.

All international participants in the bid to stabilise Mali are groping around for the same solutions: to fight the Islamists when necessary, but also to conduct the sort of work that would be termed ‘counter-insurgency’ by the less squeamish among them.

This doesn’t just mean driving around in armoured vehicles and calling in aerial power to destroy enemies when they appear: it includes the business of reassuring local leaders that if they wanted to pledge their support to a new national government, the Islamists could be prevented from extracting revenge. It means telling them – and meaning it – that they and their children can be protected from reprisal if they turn away from violent men.

Only then – when the powers that be offer their honest support – can the terrorists be prevented from seeing the desert as a sea through which their insurgent armies freely travel, with isolated settlements serving as welcoming ports of call.

International missions in Mali don’t appear to have succeeded in doing any of this. Where the French met resistance, now America has done the same. Their modus operandi seems to retain a great deal of chasing around the desert in armoured convoys, not necessarily doing anything of use, and occasionally being brutally attacked by insurgents who know the ground.

From what we have seen of the patrols captured by the BBC, there is little reason to hope for anything different from the UN mission which now contains British forces.

The Critic, May 5, 2021

Iran’s Hostage Diplomacy

To read Richard Ratcliffe’s long investigative article about the purported reasons behind his wife’s situation, one can sense the burning sense of injustice and betrayal he feels.

Not only has his wife been arbitrarily and unlawfully kept as prisoner, for years, by one of the world’s most capricious systems of hostage-taking – by a nominally legitimate state – he has also suffered the dual humiliation of being strung along by two governments: Iran’s, and ours.

The foreign secretary said last week that the treatment Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has suffered in Iran ‘amounts to torture‘. He is right. Years of detention for no reason is an act intended to humiliate and hurt. It means suffering. And with each iteration in what Zaghari-Ratcliffe has suffered, each new return to prison after a mirage of freedom or relaxation, the torturer emerges from the judge, the jailor, and the bureaucrat.

Richard Ratcliffe alludes to other forms of torture in his piece.

Raab is right that this is torture. Why, then, does his government not act as though it is? Richard Ratcliffe believes that Britain has been passive in Nazanin’s case because she is an easy target: someone individually unimportant, a dual national, just forgettable enough for the government to push to one side.

But the story of the past six years is also in large part composed of Britain’s increasingly desperate efforts to remain on Iran’s good side. This, despite everything Iran has said and done – not only to Britons and British interests, but to its neighbours, and its own citizens.

Britain is an eager member of the P5+1 group – the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany – which has fought to keep the essential framework of the Iranian nuclear deal in operation. Even after it was abandoned by America and Iran – and Iran began once more publicly enriching uranium, and boasting about its development and use of ballistic missiles.

Unlike the United States, Britain has never bowed from its stated desire to trade more with Iran and to accept Iran’s government as it stands. These commercial and political relationships trump any concerns Britain either feels or expresses about Iran’s numerous expeditionary wars abroad; its gunning down of protestors in neighbouring countries; its acts of international economic terrorism against Saudi Arabia and even Britain; its posturing threat to close now-open sea lanes; and, indeed, Iran’s continual taking of hostages from Britain and other allied countries.

None of these things cause Britain to doubt its engagement with Iran, or eagerness to conclude whatever deal proves eventually acceptable to the Americans.

For Richard Ratcliffe’s part, one can see the absurdity in all of this. Britain is willing to excuse Iran so much – and yet the nominal reasons for his wife’s imprisonment have proven intractable.

The Iranian nuclear deal involved the unfreezing of billions of dollars of Iranian assets, something which is continually raised by Iran in relation to the hostages it takes. In the deal’s most visible and infamous moment, the Americans airlifted first millions, then billions, of dollars of unfrozen Iranian cash into Iran proper.

But Iran wants more money, and faster, than has currently come its way. And it justifies all its hostile actions in relation to specific sums and niggling debits – which its leaders know can be pursued more easily through imprisoning those vulnerable to kidnapping than through any system of international arbitration.

Many of these assets were seized entirely legitimately, and for good reason. Some were taken from Iran in 1979, after the shah was overthrown and Iran became a newly militant state, pledging to begin a violent theocratic overthrow of the world order. Other seizures followed specific outrages linked to Iran, for example the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings which murdered hundreds of international peacekeepers in Lebanon.

The debt for which Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is held is of the former type. The shah had paid in advance for British-built tanks, which, after the revolution, Britain did not want to hand to an expansionist theocracy. Britain kept the tanks and the money, now estimated – following decades of court cases, to be around $400 million. Ratcliffe is certain that this debt is the sole reason his wife is dragged unwillingly between court and prison, for years on end.

Britain’s government has gone to idiosyncratic lengths to keep hold of this money when otherwise it is relaxed about Iranian military development and indeed, enriching Iran. It has privileged a company, International Military Services (IMS), which is wholly owned by the state, in the process.

Recently rumours have gathered that Britain was about to pay roughly $400 million to Iran in exchange for some hostages. Richard Ratcliffe alludes to one other currently held by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards. The Foreign Office has thoroughly denied these suggestions.

Whatever ends up happening, the process has shown the bizarre lengths to which countries must now go to deal with Iran. The Iran deal which was concluded last decade did not stop Iranian wars across the Middle East, and nor has the gradual unfreezing of assets afforded anything but more insistent demands from a taker of hostages.

With Britain painfully ambivalent on all of these questions, one wonders why the payment of one particular debt has created so many years of trouble. A less passive government could keep the money and justify doing so – but one as weak and equivocal as ours struggles even to do the same.

All of which draws into question why Britain remains bound by a non-functioning Iran deal framework if it forces the country to liberate millions of pounds to an open aggressor, or keep suffering the individual torture and collective humiliation of Iran’s hostage diplomacy.

The Critic, May 6, 2021

Pointless Bloodshed

The children of Ashkelon in southern Israel will be thankful that an order from the Israel Defense Force closed their school on Monday. Otherwise, a number of them might now be dead. Their school is as of this morning a smoking ruin, hit by a missile fired by Hamas from Gaza. But in Ashkelon at least, no children were harmed.

That’s less true for people in Gaza, where retaliatory Israeli strikes in response to the rocket barrage have killed at least 24. Elsewhere, Israelis in unknown numbers have been wounded. The health ministry claims wounds to more than 25 civilians from rockets and their aftermath. Gazan injuries and deaths can be attributed both to Israeli bombing and to the inaccuracies and failures of some of Hamas’ barrage of 300 rockets, some of which fell short of the desired target.

The rockets fired by Hamas on Monday mark an unpleasant escalation. For the past few years, Hamas has not attacked Jerusalem. But in this conflict, every lull must come to an end, violence must be resumed, and lives must be sacrificed to act out unhappy developments in politics. 

In these periodic episodes of ritual bloodshed, there is always a ‘flashpoint’ and those flashpoints often involve either holy sites or the control of land. This time, it included them both.

Recent weeks have seen angst and resistance grow as the Israeli state travelled closer to the eviction of Palestinians from an area of Jerusalem called Sheikh Jarrah.

Sheikh Jarrah was captured by Israeli in the 1967 war, and the claims of the Palestinian locals to ownership are invalidated by a 1950 law on ‘absentee property’, which appears to suggest that Israeli Jews can reclaim property on the basis of deeds from before the legal independence of Israel in 1948, whereas Palestinian refugees and their descendants cannot.

Recent court cases have upheld the eviction of Palestinian residents, while 17 were injured in violence between Palestinians and Israeli authorities. A few days ago, before the rockets started flying, the United States and others expressed ‘concern’.   

But aside from disputes over land, the recent violence also featured holy sites. Last week and this one, protests and confrontations surrounded the plan for Israeli nationalists to stage a march through the Old City of Jerusalem to mark Jerusalem Day. These nationalists are not mainstream figures and their march was never intended as bland celebration.

The provocation all of this represented has been played out in the press, as well as the toing and froing of authority. Although it authorised the march, the Israeli police had to contend with its route. Should it be permitted to travel through the Damascus Gate, where anger and counter-protests would be inevitable? Eventually, after insisting that the route would not be changed, it was amended. Although this has all since been overshadowed by more direct confrontation.

Observers of the Israel-Palestine conflict, and partisans in it, enjoy fiery metaphors. The region is a ‘tinderbox’ awaiting ignition from a ‘spark’. Perhaps if the tinderbox truly goes up in flames there will be a ‘general conflagration’. This time there was a real fire to illuminate the image, as a tree caught light outside the al-Aqsu mosque on Monday – a holy site fitting the bill of a cherished symbol, as if to throw the whole scene into sharper relief.

We cannot know for how long the bombardments will continue, or whether they will lead to a more general conflict. Israeli forces have mobilised some soldiers and move them towards Gaza to support a continued pattern of Israeli aerial attacks that have, the IDF claims, killed one Hamas commander and 25 ‘operatives’.

But if things do not escalate into a new Gaza war, of which there have been three this century, there is little reason the status quo will change in the face of this violence.

Israel will remain intact and strong. Gaza will continue to be poor and isolated, under Israel and Egyptian blockade, misruled by Hamas, which has not allowed an election in 15 years. Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories will continue; so too will the eviction of Palestinians who claim to hold decades-long deeds to their land.

The killing of Hamas commanders will serve little strategic advantage, nor the deaths of any small number of operatives. 

Both Hamas and Israel operate under the assumption that a new Gaza war would effectively defeat them both. Israel can win such conflicts militarily but cannot stop the capacity of Hamas to continue a campaign of periodic bombardment against soft targets. Hamas can win the social media war, and the war of the international press, but never push Israel back, nor increase Gaza’s surface area and decrease its squalor.

If this unpleasant exchange of fire is followed by another lull, we know what will happen next. That too will end, caused by something small or big, simply because the facts of the situation do not change. The effort to avoid violence becomes harder the longer it has been. Just as blood is now being spilt pointlessly, so it will be spilt again. 

The Critic, May 12, 2021

Cyber War

For the owners and operators of the Colonial Pipeline, the resumption of normal operations following an attack of ransomware probably brought little pleasure. Not least because, according to an official, they had paid up to $5 million to the attackers in ransom in the process. But to have one’s business entirely paralysed in this way is not so much a wake up call, as it has been fashionable to call it, as a time to get serious.

Instead, it is a notice of near-term danger. These sorts of attacks are often linked, either speculatively or directly, to states – and hacks of large American software and companies are normally attributed to expansionist foes like Russia and to China. To think, this one was apparently done by amateurs.

The amateurs may not be state-sponsored, but they are still a problem. The group is apparently called DarkSide and specialises in a form of cyber-criminality. The Biden administration is at pains to say that it has links to the territory, if not the government, of Russia. DarkSide itself claims to be shutting down in light of attracting rather a lot of unwelcome attention. but where it went, other groups will travel. And where amateurs tread, the professionals employed by states are soon likely to be.

The Colonial attack seems to have taken 45 per cent of the region’s petrol distribution offline almost by accident. An accident this time, but likely a vision of the future. State actors would likely attack the same targets with a little more deliberateness. In domains other than natural resources, the cyber wargames of states have had a good deal of recent success.

The hacking of Microsoft Exchange Server which came to light earlier this year is a salient example. The attackers, profiled as being unusually persistent and aggressive, are said to have accessed the emails and internal communications of up to 30,000 American organisations. This is very likely an underestimate, just as the scale of earlier hacks and breaches tends to grow in the rear-view mirror. It took rather a while for the scale of the hack of Equifax in 2017, and the theft of data from over 100 million people, to be glimpsed. There is barely a ceiling to the numbers of people and businesses these attacks could affect. 

Microsoft and security companies publicly blamed the Chinese state for the hack of the Exchange software. The nature of the attack – with its internal persistence and aggression, and its signs of sophisticated prior coordination suggests more than the opportunistic ransomware attacks on the Colonial Pipeline and of the sort which have occasionally bedevilled British hospitals and much of the Ukrainian internet and economy in the past half-decade. In those cases, if the hackers themselves are to be believed, they were merely fishing for some cash and found they had paralysed states and countries by accident.

State attackers are more tenacious, more targeted, and more destructive – in narrow terms, and in the broader analysis of national security. Chinese theft of American intellectual property is a continual bugbear that has given an unreasonable advantage to an economic competitor. But when Russia appears to have attempted to hack into the research programmes of the British state, American companies and further afield last year, to steal research as each fought against the covid pandemic – including the data of and research into potential vaccines – it is hardly difficult to see the national security threat all this could pose.

Whatever it is that amateurs can do, the threat from hostile states is infinitely greater. State-funded cyberwarfare is better resourced and unshackled from the motive of making a buck. It can be more insidious or more broadly destructive. It can steal essential information without appearing to have done anything, or it can wreck general chaos with aplomb. China is claimed to be behind a cyberattack which caused blackouts in Mumbai amid rising tensions with India, fitting rather nicely any objective of threatening pandemonium.

With much of China’s funding for cyber warfare completely off the books, and possibly supplementing China’s official military spending quite handily. This is  something alluded to by Matt Pottinger and H. R. McMaster, formerly of Donald Trump’s National Security Council and in a position to know, in a recent discussion for the Hoover Institution. Both were bullish on the subject of America’s ability to win any confrontation with China across a ‘full spectrum’ of theatres, be they land, sea, air, space and the cyber world. But one could detect a little nervousness for both in the latter category.

We ought perhaps to update our assumptions of how much China is spending to outmatch and overawe the United States in conventional military strength.

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, a document prepared in 2017, noted that through cyberwarfare, ‘adversaries could disrupt military command and control, banking and financial operations, the electrical grid, and means of communication’. Government networks are not immune from the same attackers, the document stated, and must therefore be protected by layered defences, more secure networking, and the real world interruption of cybercriminal enterprises. This might prove difficult in the face of an adept and richly-resourced Chinese cyberwarfare division.

With many of China’s efforts to attack American companies being missed and concealed, and therefore not even arriving in the public domain, this is the front in American and Chinese pseudo-conflict that many in the US and Europe neglect to think about. Increased wariness of the growing risk this presents may be one positive consequence of a ransomware attack pulled off by some apparently repentant Russian criminals.

The Critic, May 27, 2021

Can Belarus Do Whatever It Wants?

You can probably appreciate the terror he felt, even more than the fear experienced by those who thought they were in the midst of a mid-air attack by terrorists. 

Roman Protasevich, a Belarusian activist and journalist who runs a popular opposition Telegram channel, boarded a cheap flight from Athens to Vilnius on Sunday. He and the rest of the passengers did not reach their intended destination. 

Protasevich was arrested in the past for his part in protests in Belarus, and was later accused by Belarusian authorities of organising others –and of fighting with the pro-Ukrainian Azov Battalion in the country’s strange, seven-year-long quasi war with Russia and its proxies in the east of Ukraine.

Belarus is a state without the rule of law, governed without laws, so the exact nature of Protasevich’s alleged crimes remain usefully ambiguous. That he is considered a terrorist by the state is clear. That the state wants to execute him, ditto.

Back to the aircraft. Protasevich had noticed a few ‘dodgy’ guys tailing him in Athens. Some of them took his picture at the airport. According to the CEO of Ryanair, KGB men boarded the aircraft. They may have started a ruckus onboard. Either way, half an hour after the aircraft entered Belarusian airspace, its pilot was told by the Belarusian air traffic controllers that they had received a bomb threat – something apparently sent to several airports.

After notifying the pilots, Belarus demanded that the plane set down in Minsk rather than travelling on to Lithuania. It sent up a MiG fighter to make the demand more pressing. 

You know the rest: the aircraft was diverted.  Protasevich told his fellow passengers that because he faced execution, he was as good as dead when they landed. Then he and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, were bundled off the plane and into state custody, where the country’s exiled opposition leader says there is a high chance they are already being tortured for information. 

The bomb threat was purportedly from Hamas, by the way. Hamas has denied involvement – no bomb was ever found.

What you may not know is that the email claiming to deliver the bomb threat was sent 24 minutes after the plane was first contacted by authorities and told to go to ground in Minsk. The disconnect in time was confirmed by the email provider, Proton Mail. 

According to Newlines: the heading of the message was an unsubtle ’Allahu Akbar’. The sender was ‘We, Hamas soldiers’, the message said, ‘demand that Israel cease fire in the Gaza Strip. We demand that the European Union abandon its support for Israel in this war. … A bomb has been planted onto this aircraft. If you don’t meet our demands the bomb will explode on May 23 over Vilnius.’

The bomb plot makes things considerably worse than merely sinister. It means that in addition to diverting a civilian aircraft, countermanding freedom of the air, and arresting on dubious charges an opposition figure, the Belarusian authorities have also orchestrated a false-flag terrorist attack in open view. (The purpose of terrorism being terror rather than destruction per se, there needn’t have been a bomb for it to qualify.)

Much has been huffed and puffed in Europe about this. European leaders have made use of their talent for condemnation. It’s an outrage. It’s an assault on the union. It’s an act of war. 

There is a case to be made for all of these.

But what Europe, and NATO, appear not to have done –at least yet –is matched their actions to their verbose reactions.

The European Union has indicated that it will announce new sanctions on Belarus –notably its primary industries. These sound impressive and may be trailed in such a way to make them look flashy.  However, any real punishment against the dictatorship would go far further than that. It would involve living up to all the rhetoric which declares a hijacking like this to be an unpardonable, unprecedented crime.

If this is state-sanctioned terror, it justifies looking again at the claimed legitimacy of the Belarusian government. if this is an act of war, it justifies a war footing. Work must also be done to convince people of a couple of distinct inclinations that this is in fact an event of note. 

Conspiratorial types have accused the United States of doing the same thing in its bid to locate Edward Snowden in 2014. Superior journalists have noted that when Iran illegitimately forced the landing of an aircraft to arrest Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of a militant organisation in Balochistan, Britain in effect said ‘good work, Iran’. Rigi was executed, as it happens.

I have also heard, from more than one stolid Englishman, that either Belarus is entitled to do whatever it pleases within its airspace or that, separately, if a pro-Western country like Israel (presumably because they ‘don’t mess about’) had used their tradecraft to achieve a similar result, the self-same Englishmen would applaud the graft.

These views are all separately illegitimate – fake bomb threats are bomb threats; the hunt for Snowden never got quite so violent as this; and freedom of the air means that countries whose airspaces appear between two airports cannot force down craft, in which with few exceptions other countries’ laws apply in flight, in order to satisfy domestic convictions in absentia.

With a few sanctions and some hot language of condemnation, European nations don’t make these points as clearly and with enough force as the moment requires.

​One or two measures seem clever – like opening up the EU’s labour market to Belarusians, precipitating a gargantuan brain drain which would make the survival of Belarus’ economy either doubtful or dependent on European remittances. We will see if they are adopted. 

In September last year, I wrote worriedly for this magazine of the protests then picking up steam in Belarus. It takes rather a lot to detach dictators which cling to power like barnacles cling to hulls. Like barnacles, as this week shows, dictators pose problems for other peoples’ craft.

If this really is an outrage, an act of terror or war, perhaps it’s time to consider more dramatic ways to prise this particular barnacle – as aggressively as needed – from its filth-encrusted place on the side of the ship.

The Critic, June 1, 2021

Vlogging around Syria’s War

Syria’s war, perhaps unlike any other civil conflict this century, has been uniquely influenced by propaganda. That propaganda has exerted a crucial influence over the course of the war.

Propaganda from the regime of Bashar al-Assad underplayed the crimes of the state and emphasised the undesirability of the opposition. It called rebel fighters jihadists and terrorists, and justified regime cruelty in fighting them. Propaganda from the regime and its allies minimised the regime’s use of chemical weapons, and threw into doubt the reliability of reports of chemical attacks.

Without this element of doubt, fed by propaganda, Western powers may well have intervened in the summer of 2013 against Assad – and either limited the scale of his war or overthrown him entirely. Latterly, propaganda continued to tie rebels and jihadists together, and ensured that the global campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) did not also become a campaign against the Assad regime.

Years after the war’s central point, and long after the regime’s stay in power has been all but confirmed, the path taken by regime propaganda has forked. Now it wants legitimacy rather than survival, and the certainty of international capital which would ordinarily be denied to a government so closely tied to a destabilising war so full of crimes.

Hence a consistent push towards not only presenting Syria as a safe and civilised place, in contrast to the territory of its enemies, but also a country in need of repair.

A number of Western companies now offer tours of Syria, and the regime allows fixers to conduct foreign tourists and handpicked journalists around the country. But the regime’s media strategy, and those of its allies, always skewed towards new and social media – including the cultivation of a network of bloggers to take its side, and a spate of Twitter users to amplify its chosen messages.

Now this new media strategy has begun to include a less obviously partisan sub-group: those who make videos of themselves travelling the world for YouTube.

 This is not an untapped market. In 2016, and since, North Korea has used a number of foreign and domestic vloggers to present a more favourable side of its dictatorship. One of those who has recorded videos about North Korea aimed at ‘chang[ing] your perception’ of the country is a YouTuber called Drew Binsky.

Binsky is now journeying around Syria, taking a familiar tack. In one video, Binsky says Syria is not at all as people in the West see on their TV screens or in their newspapers. He presents Syria as a fun tourist destination filled with happy people, amid the devastation. His interviews feature carefully chosen locals, but also include a mayor and militia leader, representing the fascist Syrian Socialist National Party (SSNP).

The mayor thanks Russian bombers, which have been documented committing extensive war crimes, for their efforts; and he echoes the regime in asking the international community to free up money to rebuild the Syrian state.

This sort of soft propaganda uses new media ‘creators’ to undermine news reports about human rights-abusing countries to the interest of the governments which abuse those rights. It presents the country as still worth a visit despite the crimes of its governments, and minimises those crimes in the process.

Noor Nahas, an independent open-source researcher, said: ‘I’d consider this subtle propaganda whitewashing. These vloggers always have a need to produce new and unique content, so organizations are taking advantage of that to create positive media for regimes.’

The desire to produce content makes ethical considerations fall by the wayside. It emphasises the trivial over the grave.

‘I do find it offensive especially if the vlogger is in on the whole thing’, Nahas said. ‘If they’re not, it’s just sad and disappointing for them, and to be expected from the regime’.

These videos do not educate the world about Syria. They assist the country’s leaders in disseminating their propaganda in soft-focus.

‘I think [Binsky] is a useful idiot’, Nahas said. ‘From how I’ve seen him handle himself in Syria and other videos, Drew isn’t exactly the smartest person and doesn’t seem to learn or know anything about the places he visits. He considers Brunei a dictatorship that he doesn’t recommend people to visit due to his bad experiences there, while recommending Syria completely.’

Idrees Ahmad, a lecturer in communications, media and culture at Stirling University, said: ‘in 1943 Dresden or Heidelberg were as beautiful as they have ever been. But if we discovered now that there was some British or American travel writer there at the time reviewing cafes or praising architecture we would rightly be revolted. So tourism is not a neutral thing. There is a difference between visiting Dresden today and visiting Dresden then.’

‘The context determines whether it was travel or complicity’, Ahmad said. ‘What makes such tourism particularly egregious is that it is happened at a time when over half of Syria’s population remain displaced and millions don’t have the right to visit their own homes.’

Wittingly or not, travel vloggers enter Syria at the behest of the regime and capture what it wants them to see. Changing foreigners’ perceptions of a land at war may seem a noble endeavour, but in practice, in Syria, it means adopting and broadcasting the views of those responsible.

The Arab Weekly, December 1, 2019

Syria’s Propaganda Tours

Countries in war can make surprising tourist destinations. This is one objective of the Syrian government. It wants to forge an incongruous association with the leisure of travel. Its borders admit carefully chosen foreigners in the pursuit of that aim.

It hopes the visitors will paint a picture of a country at liberty and peace, not at war – if they can overlook the destruction and depopulation of cities like Aleppo and Homs and the prominent posters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that predominate even among the ruins.

Some foreigners are admitted on scarce tourist visas and conducted, for a significant fee, by government-approved fixers around Syria’s major cities, as well as historic sites that occupy a small but significant place in state propaganda.

Others, including those in the media and people with political and cultural connections, are toured by bus around the country. They are shown model classrooms, meet with figures associated with the regime and are placed before nominally independent bloggers and other visitors who give the state’s line on its conflict.

In April 2018, one such tour took shape. It was led, if not directed, by British Baroness Caroline Cox and included minor politicians, journalists and the British Anglican priest Giles Fraser. Its moments of absurdity were documented by a member of the tour, Gareth Browne, who wrote a series of dispatches for The National describing what Cox termed ‘the crazy club’.

Less critical comment has been elicited by the members of a tour presently in progress. This tour includes American writers and activists, some of whom are employed by Russian state-aligned media, and has broadly centred on attempts to demonstrate a Syria at peace and leisure under the Assad regime.

Participants include Max Blumenthal, son of Sidney Blumenthal, an associate of Bill and Hillary Clinton; Rania Khalek, an American-Lebanese producer for In the NOW, a Russian-funded website and social media presence; Ajamu Baraka, an activist who was the Green Party’s candidate for vice-president of the United States in 2016; and others in organised labour and ‘anti-war’ circles.

Social media posts by the group herald, in Khalek’s phrase, ‘breathtaking view[s]’ of locations such as Sednaya, which holds a notorious prison where thousands of people are alleged to have been killed by the state, and, per Blumenthal, the number of bars that have apparently opened in the old city of Damascus.

The regime’s opponents, when they are mentioned, are described as jihadists who sought and failed to tamp down the desire of Syrians to consume alcohol and cohabit without marriage.

Recent tours by French and British far-right figures struck similar notes. Thierry Mariani, a member of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party, tweeted about the French wine he was enjoying near Sednaya on a similar excursion in August. Nick Griffin, who was formerly leader of the British National Party, has made many trips to Syria in a similar vein.

These journeys coalesce around similar themes. One is the Syrian regime’s desire to associate itself with Western-style amusements, such as bars and nightlife, in contrast to the death and violence with which its forces are most commonly associated.

The aim of the tours is also to suggest that privation and poverty in Syria are the product of international sanctions. Sanctions are presented, by Blumenthal and others, as an undeclared war against Assad, with graver economic consequences for Syrians than a decade of real conflict.

Even without making these points explicitly, those who tour the country uncritically serve to cement these propagandist themes.

Syrian oppositionists and human rights activists are therefore motivated to rebut the claims of visitors like these but other questions emerge: What effect do these propaganda tours have? Do they directly influence the small-to-medium audiences of the media figures in question, or in generating dissension and argument as those on tour are mocked and criticised by established journalists and analysts? The latter risks spreading the propaganda in question further, amid a cloud of acrimony.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a co-founder, with David Nott, of Doctors Under Fire, noted the other side of the propaganda.

‘I was in Idlib only three weeks ago with David Nott … I saw the devastation for myself. We were there during the Maat market bombing. We saw many children casualties being brought to the hospital in a shocking state’, de Bretton-Gordon said.

‘It is shocking that any Westerners are supporting this tyrannical regime. The regime has no morals and no scruples.’

On debating those live-tweeting their Syrian journeys, de Bretton-Gordon said: ‘Some of these people appear reasonable. Others are well known for their extreme views. What we have seen with Russian propaganda post-Salisbury is that if you put out enough propaganda, people start believing it.

‘We are giving them a platform. The odd comment now and again – so people know these people are frauds. They need to be called out but a stand up spat with them is going to get nowhere. If no one calls them out, people will start to believe.’

The Arab Weekly, September 14, 2019

Technical Difficulties

At this very moment across the world, analysts, journalists, policymakers and ordinary people are identifying sensitive military sites. They are doing so from their own homes and offices, thanks to an unintended consequence of the proliferation of wearable fitness technology.

Numerous military bases across the Middle East and Africa have seemingly been compromised by the release of data by the online fitness tracking service Strava. A ‘social network for athletes’, it has deployed what it calls a Global Heat Map, displaying information accumulated over two years detailing where people run and cycle across the world.

Unfortunately, this has exposed the details of numerous previously secret military bases in Syria, Iraq, and in the Sahel region. It also maps out French bases in Nigeria and American bases in Afghanistan. It has affected Turkish and Russian forces in Syria, too.

The Washington Post reports that this information has been available since November, but amusingly has only become the focus of global attention since it was picked up by a 20-year-old Australian student, Nathan Ruser. He notes that this development is ‘not amazing for Op-Sec [operations security]’ as ‘US [b]ases are clearly identifiable and mappable’.

This is a consequence of two very modern phenomena: the desire to track exercise, and the increasing predominance of technology which has the ability to chart movements, and otherwise keep tabs on its users.

In this case, soldiers had not turned off their wearable fitness wristbands, which they had, ironically, often been issued by higher-ups as part of a health campaign. As a consequence, global mapping software has now displayed the routes they run around bases in Bagram, al-Tanf, forward operating bases in Afghanistan, and so on.

The routes are captured effectively, with the outlines of bases neatly traced.

This is an obvious nightmare for governments seeking to keep the precise details of these sites unknown. Now they are not just known; they are the subject of international news coverage, and remain visible on global maps.

The content of these maps will be studied by foreign powers and by terror groups looking for an insight into how foreign bases are organised and laid out.

Every possible adversary has been handed a remarkable opportunity by this unforeseen development. It will make attacks on military bases simpler to plan and easier to mount. It will put lives in danger.

But more than that, the Strava situation also signals a huge change in the way technology allows anyone to access previously secret information.

In recent years open source analysis has been the domain of semi-skilled people. It has been used by amateurs to investigate the conditions of certain contemporary conflicts, for example the contentious downing of flight MH17 over Ukraine, where a rag-tag group of non-professional investigators affiliated with the citizen journalism site Bellingcat enormously undermined the Russian state’s attempts to obfuscate what happened to the plane.

But that analysis was undertaken by obsessives, people with some uncommon skills. They had to know how to geolocate using the smallest scraps of scenery; they had to have the willingness to devote incredible amounts of time to combing through potentially relevant footage or photography.

In short, no matter the possibility such technology provided, it was never going to become easy and accessible for the average internet user.

But in the case of Strava, this has changed, possibly irrevocably. To search Strava’s database, all one has to do is mouse over the location of a suspected base, and turn on the heatmap, easily mapping its outline. It is simple to toggle between satellite maps, which allow users to scout out terrain, and featureless labelled expanses, which can easily be used to identify nearby settlements.

This has compromised many facilities of many nations and done so in a way almost anyone with an internet connection can access and interpret easily.

And this is not the only development in technology which worries states.

Drone technology – long considered a potential problem for governments – is increasingly employed by non-state groups to serve their ends. Drones can be used for propaganda and reconnaissance purposes, but also offensively, even to attack targets.

For example, this can be seen in the reported Syrian rebel attack on the Russian base at Hemeimeem (which has also been compromised by Strava) using drones earlier this month. This is one part of a dense picture, which takes in the way Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, an al-Qaeda-led insurgent group) and the Islamic State group (IS) use drones to film military actions and surveil territory. 

All this means government outposts and bases, either secret or merely highly protected, are no longer hidden or out of reach.

And this could be a taste of things to come, which might change the state of secure or secret facilities in modern warfare. 

Matt Tait, a security analyst, noting the heavy activity on Strava around sites of civilian national security interest, tweeted that this might be used to ‘dox’ – meaning to expose the personal information such as names, addresses and pasts of individuals – entire intelligence agencies, putting civilian workers at risk.

Tait’s tone was comic, but his suggestion is not entirely absurd.

Technology has created challenges and opportunities before.

But at present, states appear to have lost the initiative in responding to new developments and keeping abreast of change. Instead adversaries – including terrorist and insurgent groups – have taken that initiative.

States need to take more seriously the prospect of employees or servicemen and women using technology which could unintentionally give away important details. These details could include such vital information as the location of bases, the journeys made by government figures, and the names of people in secret government work. 

Governments cannot allow lax security to let this information become publicly available. They must act to prevent this by more tightly restricting the technology government employees and agents can wear and use while in restricted locations, lest those locations become famous rather than covert, and those people in government employ end up in considerable and new danger.

The New Arab, January 29, 2018

A New Right Victim Complex

It is always a little difficult, after a massacre, to return to discussing the mundane. Talking about the banal so soon after something wrenching seems somewhat brusque. Hence the need, perhaps, to discuss the global far-right in emotive, epochal, outsized terms after the mass shooting in Christchurch. It is a way to keep the emotional intensity high – a bid to retain hot-blooded feeling, and an attempt to avoid an insensitive and premature return to reality.

But, though movements are dominated and galvanised by events which unfold in moments, moments such as these are not everything. How these movements use their months ought to occupy as much attention. And in those months, rather than the days where murderous self-proclaimed fascism appears to be dominant, it and its less overt ideological counterparts spend their time pleading weakness.

This claimed weakness is not inherent in their movements, of course. To hear members of the new right, the radical right, tell it, they do harbour power. It’s the power of silent millions, if their rhetoric is to be believed. But the silent remain so – again, in this version – in part due to pressure from above. Oppression is an essential rhetorical tool of the radical right – coming from officialdom always, often directed against a vague conception of the people, but frequently personified by treatment handed down to the social media personalities who give the movement a face and a focus.

In America, things are generally bigger, and claims of victimhood are correspondingly juiced-up. When Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist and bona fide extremist who has in recent years established an odd toe-hold in more conventional conservatism, had his accounts shuttered on several social media platforms, it was considered an example of an apparent campaign to ‘silence’ the right-leaning. The stigma of counting a crackpot among one’s number appears to matter less and less when persecution can be alleged.

That persecution also extends to media more generally, and examples of its apparent maleficence. In America, people with nightly TV programmes are oppressed if others disapprove of their tone or the substance of their words. In Britain, the same oppression is claimed, but often in tandem with earthier hints of corruption. The case of Tommy Robinson – not a fascist, of course, but a man well beyond the constraints of the political mainstream – illustrates that rather nicely.

Robinson has had a chequered time of things. From leader of the English Defence League to ex-leader claiming to have seen the light, Robinson is now a social media personality with a growing line in rabble-rousing. Part of his schtick is a sense of personal victimhood, something he claims he suffers because he wishes to protect the British people – and which could befall anyone who attempts to follow in his ideological wake.

Years ago, when Robinson wrote a book, Enemy of the State, about his apparent mistreatment, which in his words included special and unfair attention from parts of the bureaucracy unconnected with his advocacy, a number larger than his current fanbase were sympathetic.

His recent – if brief – stint in jail on the charge of breaking reporting restrictions on a series of rape trials attracted calculated sympathy from right wing radicals the world over, and set the stage for some truly demagogic rhetoric about Britain being dead in all but name and Robinson a representative of the country’s lingering soul. Robinson was released not long after the campaign began, with the court of appeals criticising the way he had been rushed through a lower court. Now he addresses large crowds, assisted by a sophisticated media operation of his own, and forms the centrepiece of a careful propaganda effort.

But the charge of unfair imprisonment isn’t all Robinson holds against the establishment. He is, he says, not misunderstood or maligned, but the victim of an entrapment in the making. To that end, Robinson constructed a long ‘documentary’ about a single interview he was expected to conduct with the BBC television programme Panorama.

In it, Robinson has an ally wear a wire to a meeting in a pub with the journalist John Sweeney, and catches Sweeney making humorous reference to how much he has drunk in the course of the evening, and Sweeney’s attempts to find out what the woman he mistakenly thought could be a source had to say about Robinson.

The interview itself approaches, and Robinson overturns the table, and subjects Sweeney to a Powerpoint presentation of his apparently damning findings. Robinson accuses Sweeney, who is following standard practice in charming and cultivating sources (albeit in a more avuncular way than some), of manipulation and deceit. He makes much of a few impolitic remarks Sweeney made over drinks. And he produces a fraudulent text – one Robinson produced on camera and had his ally, the woman Sweeney attempted to turn into a source, dangle before the journalist – as proof of Sweeney’s capacity for dishonesty.

It’s all clever propaganda on Robinson’s part, and his fans clearly enjoyed it and found it validating. But the whole thing is an exercise in paranoia – real or contrived. Although Sweeney’s professionalism may be reasonably challenged based on some of the clips produced, his fundamental honesty cannot. And the fact that Sweeney sought information about Robinson, a controversial figure – even while working in tandem with groups, like Hope not Hate, which monitor the far-right – is effectively the definition of his job.

Robinson’s stunt no more demonstrates persecution than Jones’ banning, or social media criticism – no matter how histrionic – of right-wing media personalities. But the fact that these myths are perpetuated – and how successfully – is significant. It demonstrates the extent to which the far-right has been able to give new focus to their theories of elite repression and indigenous replacement by foreigners, aided by Western governments.

As reality re-emerges after an act of evil, so must it intrude on self-created claims of persecution. The far-right is not as powerful as some of its motivated, declared enemies say, nor as persecuted as its advocates claim. In between lies a reasonable reckoning of its strength, and – at least possibly – a way forward in allaying its excesses.

European Eye on Radicalization, May 28, 2019

All Politics Is Global

Donald Trump tweeted something strange last week. In itself, that’s nothing unusual. The President certainly has form when it comes to outlandish and whacky pronouncements.

But amid his calling the Mueller investigation ‘a rigged witch hunt’ and attacking his former lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump said something else. He revealed he had instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ‘to closely study the South Africa land and farm seizures and expropriations and the large scale killing of farmers’.

From the looks of things, Trump heard about the story from Fox News, who he tagged at the end of his tweet, along with one of the channel’s star presenters, Tucker Carlson.

A clue as to why Trump expressed interest in this relatively obscure subject was provided in the thread of replies under the president’s tweet, where Canadian YouTube activist Lauren Southern thanked the president for his attention.

Southern is a fellow traveller of the alt-right and associate of the affiliated ‘identitarian’ movement. She is part of a collection of new and old media, including Carlson, which has given South Africa outsized attention in the past year. She produced an emotive hour-long film on the subject called Bloodlands. In it, she suggests that white South Africans are being murdered with the tacit acquiescence of the government, and subjected to a form of genocide. It’s a pitch built on wilful distortion combined with a histrionic tone which inflates what is still in essence a small and local issue.

The story has now found its way to the president of the United States, and serves as a reliable arrow in the quiver of the global far-right. Local stories like this increasingly form part of political discussion across the globe, as world-spanning political ideologues of all stripes use social media and internet culture to co-ordinate their messaging around parochial issues.

This could perhaps be called the globalisation of local politics. Once identified, examples of the genre can be found almost everywhere.

The far-right is best at it. In its years of isolation, activists built up serious and self-reinforcing networks, which emerged from the tumult of 2016 strong and certain of what their participants believed.

Those ideas, harboured almost in secret and hardened in the online wilderness, now emerge in odd places. The far-right is effective on YouTube, where its proponents talk about walls, migration, feminism, and George Soros, with relative ease and surprising effectiveness.

This has bled into political culture worldwide, elevating often trivial incidents in carefully selected countries to global news stories. A few months ago, American, Dutch and Australian politicians intervened in what might previously have been a decorous and small-time debate about British media law.

These varied personalities rallied to protests against Tommy Robinson’s imprisonment for breaching reporting restrictions on a criminal case in progress. Robinson’s hardcore advocates, co-ordinated by Ezra Levant of the radical right lodestar The Rebel, turned a staid discussion about procedure and process into a tempestuous argument about free speech, multiculturalism, religion and race.

We find the same characters weighing into the debate about South Africa. By drip-feeding horrifying stories about the murders of white farmers – and exaggerating the South African government’s apparent indifference – the radical right has been able to paint a series of brutal but unrelated killings as a genocide in progress.

This has become a far-right cause celebre like no other, a story which has travelled from the YouTube-borne right, via Fox News, all the way to the Oval Office. Cherry-picked stories of other nations serve to provide the willing with endless cautionary tales. In far-right circles, Sweden and Britain have each become bywords for sky-rocketing crime rates (apparently fuelled by migration), and general moral and social collapse.

Sadiq Khan’s London is depicted as a blood-soaked morass of knife-crime and abjection. Malmo in Sweden is subject to hysterical coverage from those who know little of, and care less about, the country – something ably and even-handedly examined by Gabriel Gatehouse in a recent edition of Newsnight.

The far-right has for years claimed there is a ‘Third World invasion’ of European capital cities, which tend to have a higher percentage of foreign-born residents than elsewhere. When Trump said ‘Paris is no longer Paris’, he was echoing this idea, in a suitably truncated, distorting manner.

Though its aims are categorically distinct, parts of the international left have skilfully made use of similar techniques. We see pro-Corbyn site Skwawkbox going ‘undercover’ in Venezuelan supermarkets to disprove claims the country is going through a famine. The idea behind the stunt being that if Venezuela’s famine can be disproven or obfuscated away, those like Corbyn who once hailed the country as a beacon of hope can be insulated against the effects of its failure.

Similarly earlier this month, Corbyn supporters piled into Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had become part of the party’s battle over anti-Semitism.

This is the apotheosis of local politics gone global: a petty squabble turned into an international incident for domestic political gain. Those engaged in this ‘all-out war’, to coin a phrase, are skilled propagandists. It is almost a perverse pleasure to watch them work. But perhaps the origins of some of their tactics might at least give some of them pause for thought.

Spinning scare stories about foreign countries for domestic consumption is hardly new. Previous centuries furnish many examples of lurid press headlines about foreign horrors and politicians canny enough to capitalise. The way social media now allows foreign observers to follow developments in-depth has proved a new boon for canny, upstart political movements which disdain the status quo.

They understand how the global reach of social media has changed the way politics is conducted and the effect this could have on voters. Where once it was said that all politics was local, the opposite is now the case. Even local politics can be recruited to serve or reinforce global narratives, distorting complex reality in the process. And this in turn can characterise politics worldwide, for better or, as it has proven, for worse.

CapX, August 30, 2018

Losing James Le Mesurier

Earlier this week, in Istanbul, the world lost one of our century’s few true humanitarians. The death of James Le Mesurier was unexpected, and its cause remains officially unconfirmed. But the sum of his too-short life, though difficult to measure, is very great.

The ease of that description shows us what we have lost in Le Mesurier, and what his life was worth.

Le Mesurier ran the non-profit Mayday Rescue Foundation. He also helped found and organise Syria Civil Defence, otherwise known as the ‘White Helmets’.

The White Helmets are Syria’s civilian rescuers. Volunteers, ordinary men and women, they rush towards craters and bomb sites in the aftermath of attack. White Helmets pull people – alive, half-dead and dying – from the rubble. They save as many as they can with what little they have.

Their director, Raed al-Salah, and Le Mesurier did all they could to stop that little becoming less. As time passed, and Syria’s war ground on, theirs became a harder and more arduous task. The sum of suffering increased; but international funding, upon which the White Helmets depended, waned capriciously.

Previously friendly governments cut back their meagre assistance under the pretence of fiscal or foreign policy prudence. Syria’s neighbours and other purported friends of its people allowed the regime of Bashar al-Assad freer and freer rein in killing, and conquering territory.

Many hundreds of White Helmets have been killed in Syria’s war: in the crossfire, and in ‘double-tap’ strikes, which are designed to kill those who rush to aid the victims of the first attack. The names of the dead are written in chalk on a wall of honour in Istanbul. It is a war memorial updated every day.

The regime’s capture of territory, even more than its bombs, means persecution and death for the White Helmets left behind.

They face arbitrary arrest, torture and execution. The Assad regime and its allies considered White Helmets ‘terrorists’ – a grotesque charge which has stuck, and come increasingly to dominate popular perception of the group, despite its absolute lack of evidence and validity.

With much of Syria left, defenceless, to Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, the  job of the White Helmets and its backers became at once more urgent and closer to impossible.

The pressures on all involved, already great, mounted. For Le Mesurier, a former British soldier who moved to the Middle East in 2014 to do good, and whose office contained a painted banner which asked simply ‘what will save more lives?’, the slow, monolithic failure of the world to stop Syria’s mass murder occurring must have proven difficult to bear.

There is little reason to speculate on the manner of Le Mesurier’s death. But it is right, and vital, to concentrate on what his work meant; and how much the goodness of his life’s work threatened those whose tools are violence and death, whose enemies are those who save lives.

Syria Civil Defence and the Mayday Foundation built and supplied hundreds of teams who risk their lives to protect the lives of others. They provided the logistical support to, and marshalled international goodwill for, the heroes of our times. Their mission is to save and to preserve life, and in that mission they prove that amid the giving over of Syria’s state to the shedding of blood, and the collapse of Syrian society in war, there were those who still see the value of life.

The value of Le Mesurier’s life is found in the tens of thousands of lives his work helped to save. Tens of thousands, rescued from rubble and from death, saved from pain and from fear. The good of these acts is not calculable. Tens of thousands saved. Their children, and all the generations which will come after them, born from their survival, will be testament to the humanity of a few.

It is not right that Le Mesurier can no longer see that his life’s work was good. It is unjust that he did not live to see the children and grandchildren of those whose lives he rescued and restored. It is criminal that the world is willing to allow the work of his life to go to waste, and the country that he tried so hard to save to go to ruin.

The White Helmets’ work is proof of the humanity of the rescuers, and those who give them aid.

But their opposite – real evil – also exists; and Syria’s war demonstrates that it does. That evil is more powerful and difficult to overcome in Syria than many thought possible.

The White Helmets, including Salah and Le Mesurier, are the subject of a frighteningly effective and continuing campaign of deligitimisation and dark propaganda by the Assad regime, its Russian allies, and their useful idiots and supporters in the West.

This campaign tried to convince the world that rather than humanitarians and rescuers, the White Helmets were first imperialist agents. And then, when that charge failed to distract from the fact that these people saved lives, and that many of them had died in the process, a new, vile lie was born: that they were not rescuers at all, but were, in fact, terrorists.

There is no escape from these lies, so far have they travelled and so thoroughly have they polluted discussion of Syria around the world. The lies made the lives of many of the good difficult to endure.

But the truth told about the good is good itself. The truth of Le Mesurier’s life, and his loss, can do more than justify the grief of those who mourn him, and lessen the brutality of so senseless and unexpected a death.

We must hope that, in restating the profound good Le Mesurier and his organisation did – the tens of thousands saved, the lives restored – the circumstances of his loss and the propaganda which struggles to defeat the White Helmets’ work, and undermine their voice, can be overcome.

‘What will save more lives?’ is a question now asked by one less voice. But it is a question which still contains great moral force – and which still requires an answer.

The New Arab, November 14, 2019

Boycotting Cotton

As the mechanics of China’s genocidal repression of its Uighur minority has become more and more evident, the hunt has been on to find the link between the systematic suppression of a cultural minority and global commerce.

China is the workshop and supplier of the world, eager to pull innumerable monetary and political levers to maintain that status. A highly surveilled and repressed population could be grist for that particular mill, and a resource to be exploited in China’s hungry labour market.

Early last year, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute published ‘Uyghurs for Sale’, an extensive report detailing how Uighurs found themselves, as a result of the state’s attempts to destroy their culture and prevent them from practicing collective politics, enmeshed within China’s system of state capitalism.

The report is not comprehensive, but it lays out a general case: that Uighurs from Xinjiang province in the west of China were shipped out as impressed labour across the country – sent to factories and workshops across China – where they were forced to work in some of China’s manufacturing jobs, some were sent straight from the gates of internment camps. Wherever they were dispatched from, these workers were unable to go home.

China is the world’s second largest producer of cotton. It is harvested and processed in Xinjiang – and there is evidence that Uighur slave labour is used in both activities

Only some firms are named outright, although the report’s authors note that many other firms – Western and Asian – likely have this slave labour in their supply chains. Those companies who were named denied their knowledge and their involvement; they claimed that they take these allegations seriously and they promised to ‘investigate’ their supply chains, and its web of subcontracted labour, before promptly continuing as before.

Because Uighur slave labour is so diffusely spread around, those international bodies and campaigns which organise against the genocide had difficulty gaining purchase. The Australian report was not conclusive and later reporting indicated that as well as shipping Uighurs out to the national Chinese labour market, the authorities in Xinjiang had begun to build factories in the internment camps themselves, adding another grim layer of complexity.

As this was a question of slave labour serving the supply chains of global capital, one possible tactic seemed obvious: a consumer boycott of sorts, aiming to punish those firms who profited from this impressed labour. But at that time, the individual boycotts advocated for by campaigning organisations seemed ineffective, not least because the possible targets were so diffuse.

Activists could try to avoid clothes from Nike and Gap; technology from Huawei, Apple, Samsung, and Sony; and cars from BMW and Volkswagen – all named in the ASPI report. But the possibility of doing any of them real damage in the process seemed remote.

When Disney filmed its remake of Mulan in Xinjiang, and thanked the authorities there for their co-operation, activists were outraged and campaigned on the issue – but whether it was this that led to the film’s poor box office rather than the poor reviews and the pandemic, could not be said.

One primary industry that seemed a good candidate for an umbrella campaign – China is the world’s second largest producer of cotton.  It is harvested and processed in Xinjiang and there is evidence that Uighur slave labour is used in both activities. When the Xinjiang cotton story emerged, it seemed briefly like a specific point around which potential boycotters could operate, a little like the pressure to refuse South African apples during apartheid.

Impressed labourers harvesting cotton bore a strong resemblance to plantation slavery. It seemed extraordinary to some that this system could exist at all. And those clothing companies which made use of the cotton could be criticised and made figureheads for commercial co-operation in genocide – quite a thing when many of them market their clothes as ethically made.

The Better Cotton Initiative, a trade group within the industry, first announced the suspension of its activities in the province in March 2020, and then an end of field work in October of that year. The environment was ‘untenable’ due to the persistent problem of slave labour, it said. Some consumer organisations have focused on ridding one’s wardrobe of Xinjiang cotton, and not buying more. But this has proven remarkably tricky given its ubiquity.

Nonetheless, in Western markets the power of the boycotts has not been a strong force. And while those firms which do use this cotton have not necessarily suffered for it in heir Western markets, in China, the same firms are punished for even talking about removing Xinjiang cotton from their supply.

H&M has been effectively removed from the Chinese internet for daring to say anything; now people in China cannot even hail a taxi to its shops

This year, China has instituted its own wide-ranging boycott of Western firms who have uttered even a squeak about the sourcing of cotton. Those firms which have attempted to divest themselves of the cotton or to condemn its use by others have found themselves essentially forced out of the markets in China. H&M has been effectively removed from the Chinese internet for daring to say anything; now people in China cannot even hail a taxi to its shops.

Some of the organisations designed to push for monitoring of international cotton to undermine slave labour in supply chains are themselves being suppressed by China, or otherwise bent to the state’s will. The Chinese branch of the Better Cotton Initiative, stretching credulity, found no examples of forced labour in Xinjiang.

Is it any wonder that some firms have attempted to play both sides? Hugo Boss’s Western divisions made the right noises about slave labour. But in the Chinese language, on Weibo, its account said that the company would continue to purchase and support Xinjiang cotton. This did not work, however – with Western consumers charging Hugo Boss with mercenary cynicism, and Chinese social media users claiming the company was insufficiently patriotic for criticising conditions in Xinjiang in English, Hugo Boss later claimed the statement supportive of Xinjiang cotton was ‘unauthorised’.

It is likely this story will rumble on, not least because the evidence of China’s genocide only grows, and there is no chance it will end for the foreseeable future. But as the tentative, easily cowed steps made by campaigners towards uniting around a boycott have shown – it is just as hard to punish firms and states which use slave labour as it is to determine whether fibres picked or processed by slaves ended up in a particular t-shirt or dress.

The New Arab, May 19, 2021

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