The Paris Attacks: How do we respond?

The slaughter of 131 civilians in Paris, one of the world’s most famous and vibrant cities, represents the worst terrorist attack to hit Europe since the Madrid bombings in 2004. It is another blow to a wounded nation in a string of attacks which have struck France in 2015 and an atrocity which dwarfs the horrific assault on Charlie Hebdo magazine’s headquarters by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula on 7 January 2015.  There is no doubt these events are shocking, the events must be thoroughly analysed, the images are harrowing and the perpetrators of these crimes must be brought to justice. However these attacks must be put into context, policymakers must be scrutinised and our reactions at an individual, community and government level must be cautious as well as fearless in the short-term.

For all the horrors splashed across newspapers and television in recent days ISIS stands badly wounded. The organisation’s territories are shrinking under the combined pressure of a variety of international, regional and local forces. Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian Army in-coordination with Russian air-strikes, and supported by Iranian fire-power have retaken key territories and broke year-long jihadist siege of a military air base in the country’s north days before the massacre in Paris. Its forces are encircled by Iraqi Security Forces and its backbone of Shiite militia at Ramadi, whose seizure by ISIS in May, 2015 had policymakers and political commentators alike contemplating that an assault on Baghdad was imminent.  Similarly Tikrit, seized by ISIS in 2014 and the home of Saddam Hussein, was recaptured in April 2015.  More symbolically, Kurdish forces (supported by Yezidi militia) have recaptured Sinjar cutting the main road which connect ISIS’s Syrian headquarters in Raqqa (which is under sustained bombardment by Russian, U.S, and French aircraft) from its headquarters in Mosul, Iraq. The retaking of Sinjar, whose fall was followed by harrowing mass-executions, the ethnic cleansing of the Yezidi population, and an event which heralded ISIS’s emergence as a major player in the Middle Eastern wars represents a practical and symbolic military breakthrough while Mosul stands isolated should Kurdish and U.S Special Forces consolidate their gains at Sinjar.

ISIS is losing the conventional war. Their perverse idea of a ‘caliphate’, a far-cry from its envisaged utopia,  is cracking under sustained military pressure and it should not come as a surprise despite its vast array of fighters, its military and territorial gains in 2014, and its propaganda. ISIS’s twisted blend of revolutionary ultra-violence has united practically every international, regional and local powers against the organisation. At a conventional military level, as a functioning state it could never survive as a long-term political and economic entity.

However as the Paris attacks and the bombing of the Russian airline over the Sinai have illustrated, modern extremism is flexible, diverse, dynamic, fragmented and the equivalent of a modern hydra. Even if counterinsurgency eliminates leaders such as Osama Bin Laden, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (the former leader of ISIS) and its executioners such as Mohammad Emwazi, new leaders and new extremists will fill the void. The death of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, would not symbolise the death-blow to the organisation. The death of Mohammad Emwazi (also known as Jihadi John) days before the Paris attacks demonstrate this paradox; ISIS have the capability to inflict deep damage on our societies even when Western policyymakers strike symbolic victories.  ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shabaab, Boko Haram and Jahbat al-Nusra and the modern phenomenon of militant Islamic extremism cannot be defeated by conventional warfare. Modern extremism is absent a conventional hierarchical structure.  ISIS is presented by politicians as monolithic yet it is the organisation’s very ambiguity which makes it difficult, if not impossible to completely eradicate, despite the bullish rhetoric of politicians such as Hollande, Cameron, and Obama in the wake of the Paris attacks.

While ISIS is part of the legacy of the catastrophic Iraq War, the Syrian Civil War and its ideology  was significantly developed by men such as Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden, Abdullah Azzam and Seyed Qutb during the turbulent Cold War era, ISIS is also a brand, it is a system of ideas, it is a digital caliphate and it is a wider part of the upheaval created by the Information Age. ISIS is a thoroughly modern phenomenon. As Jason Burke notes ‘Islamic militants use social media because we use social media; they seek resources…money…hydrocarbons…weapons…in the way that many actors do across the world today…they multi-task as terrorists, insurgents and administrators because all play roles that are increasingly ill-defined; they exploit and are formed by the dramatic disruption…the Internet has brought…financing is crowd-sourced from donors…in a way that would be recognisable to any entrepreneurial start-up anywhere in the world.’ This is what differentiates ISIS from Al-Qaeda; it is a hybrid, a combination of old and new as globalisation and newer forms  global interaction of politics, economics, culture, technology and social organisation that dominate our contemporary world have rapidly ‘weakened older forms of authority.’

As ISIS’s conventional military operations and ambitions as a state faltered, it switched back to its most potent strategy; sowing political, communal and societal divisions and altering national politics and military policy for the worst through urban terrorism and asymmetrical warfare.  This classic formula of asymmetrical warfare has produced results. Suicide bombings hampered the Americans ill-fated state-building project in Iraq and proved to be a lethal catalyst for tit-for-tat Shiite and Sunni pogroms, the Ankara bombings were scheduled days before highly-charged elections in Turkey, and most devastatingly on September 11th 2001, the destruction of the World Trade Center led to the gross misapplication of American political and military power across the globe, to which the most devastating consequences were seen in the Middle East. These small attacks occuring in cities across the world, by comparison to the bloodshed and large-scale confrontations occurring across the Middle East, are more unnerving because they are difficult to prevent, they require a strong response by the targeted government, and their response, if heavy-handed and driven by ill-advised policies, can increase problems rather than alleviate them. In Paris the attacks were designed precisely to foment religious and racial war and strengthen hard-line right and right-wing parties just three weeks before regional elections in which parties such as Front National (led by Marine Le Pen) are ‘tipped to make historic gains.’ While the terrorist attacks witnessed in Paris were fanatical acts, they were first and foremost political acts dressed in religious rhetoric and designed to cause havoc at a hyper-sensitive moment in French politics.

At face-value Western values continue to be upheld, but in reality, at-least at a state-level, they may become an increasing illusion in the obsessive quest for security. Security is tightened, refugees, opposition and minorities are stereotyped and vilified, military arrests and operations are conducted and often kill more civilians, and the hunt for terrorists, their affiliates, and potential suspects justifies the violation and eradication of human rights. More disturbingly in Europe it empowers hard-right and right-wing politicians, journalists and commentators who seek to exploit the tragedy to advance unnerving political agendas, ideologies, and policies.

While the acts of violence are a consequence of extremism, they are also a product of gang violence, immigration problems, poverty, issues of societal segregation and integration, contextual regional and national politics, and the policies governments’ are using to pursue potential and real threats. These are all factors which are difficult for many governments to address under normal conditions and in an atmosphere of relative stability and now these socio-political and religious issues have been ruthlessly exploited by ISIS and its affiliates in times of grave political and economic crisis in Europe.

The narratives of terrorism and Islamic militancy dominate mainstream political, military, and media discourse as ‘Islamism, Islamic extremism, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic theology, Islamic irrationalism – makes Islam seem more than ever a concept in search of some content while normalising hatred and prejudice against more than 1.5 billion people.’ At the other end of the spectrum ISIS has constructed an equally potent narrative. Its propaganda distorts local and national context, its warped interpretation and vile manipulation of religion (used as another form of politics) has alienated other factors driving conflict in the Middle East and has, as Medhi Hasan claims, ‘been a disaster for the public image of Islam – and a boon for the Islamophobia industry.’  ISIS is a symptom, not the cause of violence in the Middle East, and has been fueled by friend and foe alike in the region. Both polarised narratives feed off each other, promote disinformation, produce generalisations, they exacerbate intolerance and distort truth and they pollute the values of billions such as tolerance, religious diversity, multiculturalism, the exchange of ideas, innovation, enlightenment, spirituality, education, and progressive thinking. These are all values which are under threat. 

Security is an undeniable necessity in this age of crisis and war, we must remain vigilant against those individuals and organisations who seek to violently slaughter our families, our neighbours, our friends and our fellow citizens. Yet we cannot sacrifice our ideals, our principles, and our values for absolute security, a security which is practically impossible to enforce constantly in the face of modern extremism.

We must remain equally wary of individuals and groups within our own society who seek to exploit such pain to advance repugnant and racist forms of politics wrapped in promises of security. If we do not, if we harden our own attitudes, if we lash out wildly at provocation, if we scapegoat minorities and refugees and label them spies, outsiders and infiltrators because of the atrocities of the few, we will empower and give individuals and organisations who seek to advance their cause through force their twisted sense of justice, logic and legitimisation to conduct appalling violence and divide communities across the world. If we pursue this path, we give terrorists, politicians and people who seek to exploit tragedy their victory. How we react to the harrowing events of 13th-14th November, 2015 as a community of nations, as societies from all walks of life, as individuals will define whether these attacks were a resounding success or a spectacular failure.

I see only spectacular failure. The Paris attacks were a potent symbol of a world gripped by crisis, war and one which is dangerously polarised politically, religiously and fractured economically. These are undeniable realities facing us and they must be challenged. Yet the attacks were also a symbol of an unyielding determination of individuals and communities to act and stand courageously in the face of sorrow, extraordinary pain, and uncertainty. Time and again we have seen this across the world whether it be from Beirut to Paris, Tel Aviv to Damascus,  Baghdad to New York, Volgograd to London, Sydney to Mumbai and Ankara to Kabul. The shocking brutality and intolerance of the few is met by the same courage, the same raw outpourings of grief and love which are as beautiful as they are heart-wrenching to witness, and every time this ferocity is met with the same response by millions of families, friends, and individuals; they fearlessly say no to extremism, intolerance and violence every year against every attack and atrocity across the globe. So long as this continues, so long as even a single individual, regardless of their religion, political affiliation, culture or society, says no to the extremities of war and says no to violence as the only palpable outcome to disagreement while forsaking hatred and vengeance the principles and values which have seen man through the darkest of times can never be defeated. Liberté, egalité, fraternité.

Matthew Williams






The Fallacy of Kenyan Counterterrorism Operations

Image via Global Panorama

Strategies for pursuing terrorist cells and insurgent groups in weak African states are still in their infancy. However the shocking disregard for human rights of minority populations by governments’ is a factor that is bound to complicate the search for liberty and security for countries in Africa involved in the Global War on Terror (“GWOT”).

Recent efforts by the Kenyan government to bolster its national security by conducting military operations  throughout Somalia since 2011 and its  harsh use of counterterrorism strategies  have not only failed to achieve their objectives, but have inadvertently exposed the vulnerability of the country’s governance and security institutions and infrastructure. Undoubtedly, Kenya does not have the financial muscle and infrastructural backbone to participate in the GWOT as a partner, unless it chooses to enroll as a proxy of the Western powers – something which it has already done – in order to benefit from funds availed to ‘surrogate’ states.

However, the approach that has been adopted by the Kenyan government to collectively target its minority Muslim population by ignoring its socially-contracted responsibilities and respect for the rule of law have become troubling and counterproductive. Specifically, the path that Kenya has chosen to follow in its counterterrorism operations has not only conflated historical injustices perpetrated by previous regimes on its marginalised minority populations with its current human rights abuses, it has re-opened ethnic and political fractures in Kenya. The strategies adopted by the government indicate that little has been done to counter-act or prepare for the spill-over and consequences likely to stem from the country’s involvement in a brutal asymmetrical war. The false promise that al-Shabaab will be crushed by a battalion of Kenya Defence Forces – infamously implicated in the lucrative Somali charcoal business in Kismayo – and antagonising the Somali and Muslim minorities in Kenya through extrajudicial killings and disappearances of Muslim clerics and faithfuls perceived to be radicals is not only misleading, but dangerously oversimplified strategically. The behaviour of the government in pursuit of its security obligations ought not to mirror the dehumanising excesses of a morally bankrupt terror outfit, but act as a responsible government aware of its mandate.

The recent admission by the United Kingdom’s former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that misrepresented intelligence and planning errors was to blame for the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and a candid statement by the foreign minister of Uganda, Sam Kutesa, that military solutions are not enough to tackle the rising tide of radicalisation and terrorism in Africa should serve as a stark reminder to Kenya about government operations in Somalia.


When Kenya invaded Somalia in 2011, it had unwittingly entered into an endless cycle conflict which has been misunderstood by nearly all policymakers. By choosing to pursue al-Shabaab in its heartland on the back of a ragtag tribal militia – the Ras Kamboni Brigade spearheaded by Sheikh Ahmed Islam Madobe – without paying attention to the consequences likely to stem from engaging this indistinct enemy in a brutal asymmetrical war, there was every indication that Kenya was punching above its own weight.

What remains unclear is the motives which prompted the country to decisively act and how it envisioned realising this mission after accomplishing its strategic goals. Indisputably though, it was clear from the outset that the Kenyan government could not commit to a long-drawn battle against al-Shabaab’s insurgency on its own terms, given its rudimentary war chest. Since this incursion was based on a unilateral decision without the blessings of either the United Nations or the African Union, there was no doubt that the financial cost of the war on terror was going to burden the country’s fledgling economy, which was still recovering from the aftershocks of the post-election violence of 2007-2008.

Nevertheless, there were multiple factors motivating Kenya’s military campaign. The Kenyan government’s intention to firmly align its interests with those of other states in the GWOT was poised to benefit the country by securing its borders and salvaging its economy – especially its tourism industry – from the reverberations of sporadic attacks by criminal elements from Somalia. Strategically, this undertaking also deliberately aimed at ensuring Kenya’s gains from streams of funds and resources available to proxy states in the fight against terror.

Navigating through Somalia’s clan-based politics, where shifts in dynamics and allegiances are unpredictable and confusing, was never going to be straightforward. Fighting alongside the Ras Kamboni Brigade alone compromises Kenyan credibility as a neutral actor in many quarters in Somalia. Similarly, there is little evidence to suggest any unity of purpose among the various state and non-state actors in Somalia. Somalia, as a theatre of war, is becoming overcrowded with actors out to pursue unilateral interests and in the process undermining each other. This is an extension of a problem that was manifest during the days of Operation Restore Hope – a factor that General Farah Aideed exploited dexterously to neutralise the United States and the UN. Somalia has also developed a concealed but elaborate political economy of war that has become malignant and capable of crushing competing forces out to change the status quo. Almost all contributing countries with forces in Somalia have wrestled with the challenge of their soldiers falling prey to the lucrative imperceptible network of the clandestine war economy.

This partly explains why defeating al-Shabaab in Jubaland has become a tough proposition for the Kenyan Defence Forces. These are some of the bottlenecks and strategic challenges which Kenya has to consider. On the other hand, the insecurity levels in northern Kenya have statistically shown, according to recent studies by the UN, to be claiming more civilian lives than the violence of al-Shabaab. Whether Kenya’s operation in Somalia is an existential threat to the country is debatable because of this.  Although the insecurity in northern Kenya is cumulatively destabilising in the long-term, the violence of al-Shabaab seems to be economically damaging and divisive in the short-term.

Image via The Guardian

Domestically Kenyan policymakers have embarked on an exercise of upgrading their lethal counter-terrorism measures in line with the intrusive expansion of the U.S military footprint and drone wars in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to fight insurgent groups.  These U.S drone wars, predominantly concentrated in Somalia and Yemen, have been conducted by the Obama administration and the CIA to hunt down and kill individuals deemed – through secret processes, without indictment or trial – worthy of elimination. These extra-judicial killings have, according to an internal 2013 Pentagon study, been carried out by secretive military unit Task Force 48-4 which wages a covert war throughout East Africa from outposts in Nairobi, Kenya and Sanaa,Yemen.  Camp Lemonnier, the main hub for these operations in the Horn of Africa, is the U.S military’s most active Predator drone base outside the war zone of Afghanistan.

These drone wars have been conducted in coordination with Kenyan forces providing information, intelligence and ground support to strike Al-Shabaab’s leadership. However, these drones, as with the Kenyan government’s security apparatus, remain a tool, not a strategy to effectively tackle the rising wave of terrorism in the region. It poorly addresses the symptoms of the conflict and neglects its root-causes in Somalia and its appeal to the marginal populations in Kenya. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S drone strikes are raising al-Shabaab’s profile and inflating its importance in Somalia. Similarly, according to Mary Harper, financial inducements used by military personnel to extract information on the whereabouts of al-Shabaab’s leadership is not appealing to the local populations for fear of reprisals from the group.

Equally these targeted killings have had immense limitations as innocent civilians have frequently been accidentally killed alongside specific targets. This was illustrated by the collateral damage of an airstrike in Dinsoor (January, 2015) which killed nine civilians as well as Yusuf Dheeq, al-Shabaab’s head of external operations.  The United States’ covert wars in Somalia has had the multiplying effect of propelling anti-American narratives and the Kenyan government has, inadvertently, fallen prey to the accusations of being a Western pawn. Likewise, the wider regional project of the Obama administration has filtered into Kenyan politics and has given the Kenyan government the impetus to disregard the international law and respect for human rights as exemplified by the abuses perpetrated by its security forces and intelligence operatives.

Image via Yahoo

These problems have been aggravated the Western-funded Anti-Terrorism Police Unit (ATPU) which has carried out a string of target killings, abductions and torture (including waterboarding, electric shocks, mock executions, and food or sleep deprivation) of perceived ‘radicals’ and young men (predominantly Muslim) opposed to the government’s treatment of the minority Muslim population and its exclusive knee-jerk reactions to the unfolding events. These actions have been justified under the guise that they support the wider regional and continental war on terror against groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated cells.

Unfortunately, the counterterrorism narrative seems to have overshadowed the Kenyan government’s ability to address the long-standing historical injustices and marginalisation of its minority Muslim population in Kenya. In addition, it has given the state credence to pursue narrow political agendas, defined by tribal and ethnic politics as opposed to broader national interests. This has significantly strengthened al-Shabaab’s propaganda machine, amplified their cause and has appealed to those with short-term and long-term grievances against the Kenyan government to join hands with the insurgent group.

Image via CFR

Centralising terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda as the core military enemy in the Somali borderlands overlooks the positive role that Islam, as a religion, could inject in resolving the problems presented by modern Islamic-related militancy, insurgency and terrorism in the Horn of Africa. These extremist organisations are not monolithic constructs; they are fluid networks with differing methodologies and strategies (both violent and non-violent) to address socio-political problems. The disproportionate focus of the Kenyan administration on al-Shabaab’s operations, prioritising the pursuit of its leadership, shoring up an isolated government in Mogadishu, will not resolve Kenya’s security challenges and does not address the root-causes of problems within its borders.

The Kenyan government need only look at Boko Haram’s insurgency in northern Nigeria as an illustration of the dire consequences of a heavy-handed government crackdown on dissent. While the Nigerian government’s conflict with Boko Haram differs in many ways to the long-term and short-term problems afflicting Kenya, parallels can be drawn, particularly in how government actions could significantly contribute to fanning the flames of war and the process of radicalisation.

As Nigerian Senator, Shehu Sani recently commented: “The root causes of this insurgency was triggered by the killing of leader out the confines of the law and since then we never knew peace.” This extra-judicial killing alluded to by Sani was the murder of Mohammed Yusuf in July 2009. His death was accompanied by Abubakar Shekau assuming command of the organisation who substantially militarised the cause and adopted more brutal tactics to accomplish Boko Haram’s goals which have included kidnappings, mass-killings and suicide bombings which have killed thousands of Nigerian civilians and security forces.

Kenya’s problematic relationship with its North Eastern and Coastal provinces could face a similar bloody outcome should the government continue, as the Nigerian government did, to conduct extra-judicial killings, hollowing out civil society, expending blood and treasure on a prelonged war in Somalia absent a political solution, and economically, politically, and socially marginalising young Muslims and ethnic Somalis in Kenya. The horrifying U.S embassy bombing in Nairobi in 1998, the Westgate Mall massacre and the slaughter of university students in Garissa, these events may pale in comparison to the cost of a fully-fledged insurgency and long-term armed conflict in northern Kenya. The Kenyan government and its security apparatus must conduct an comprehensive investigation into the extra-judicial killings of Muslim clerics and youths by bringing the perpetrators of these draconian acts to book. The state should also stop victimising and collectively targeting an entire religion and minority ethnic groups for the criminal action of hell-bent individuals and groups.

Matthew Williams and Mohammud Abdi

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: A dangerous blind-spot in the Middle Eastern wars

Image via Slate
Image via Slate

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dynamic remains a dangerous blind-spot in the current Middle Eastern wars which cannot be neglected by international and regional policymakers. Since the 50-day war in the Gaza Strip (2014) immense pressure has been building on the Israeli security apparatus attempting to contain the anger prevalent in Palestinian society, an unyielding anger which Mahmoud Abbas warns is evolving into a third intifada. These warnings have been accompanied by Abbas’s grave statement at the U.N which dealt yet another critical blow to the dying Oslo accords signed in 1993:  “As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers. We therefore declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.” 

A new Palestinian revolt against Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, when it arrives (if it has not already began), should not come as a surprise to those who have been keeping a close-eye on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the last year. However there is good reason to be distracted; the Arab revolutions stunned the world in 2011, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq remain consumed by civil war, Egypt has experienced two military coups and two revolutions, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been engaged in a regional cold-war, and the international community was rocked by the rise of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ and the resurgence of Al-Qaeda. The Middle Eastern conflict has sparked the worst refugee crisis since World War II and the West and Russia have both directly intervened in or covertly fueled the Middle Eastern wars with the aid of regional allies. Old borders have deteriorated, new states and regimes are emerging, unprecedented demographic changes are occurring, while rebellion and revolt has been met with brutal counter-revolution which has produced volatile and bloody insurgencies.

These revolutionary changes are extraordinary, a blend of unprecedented historical developments and a modern creation that has produced the criss-crossing and seemingly illogical relationships that define the chaotic landscape of Middle Eastern politics. To some extent it is understandable why these new conflicts have cast a shadow, and to some extent, side-lined developments in the occupied territories. However Israel, despite Netanyahu’s best efforts to isolate Israel from the regional socio-political shifts, has not been immune to the changes occurring across the region and be able to ignore the immense contributions made by Israelis and Palestinians alike to the best aspects of the Arab revolutions. As Adam LeBor argues:

The Arab spring is withering across the Middle East, but blooming in Israel, where the Joint List, a coalition of Islamists, Arab nationalists and progressive activists, is the third-largest bloc in the Knesset, the Israeli parliamentArab activists are using the Jewish state’s robust democracy and independent institutions to push their agenda of radical, but peaceful, political change.’

However the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’s violent dynamic, the brutality of the recent Gaza War (which left 2203 Palestinians (over 10,000 wounded) and 72 Israelis dead), the subsequent ‘Silent Intifada’ in Jerusalem and the uglier aspects of the Israeli elections have illustrated that many events in Israel and the occupied territories have mirrored the darker elements of the Arab revolutions which have generated, ‘as with…previous revolutions, extremism and drift.’  This modern extremism and violence has fused to the century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict while the deepening contemporary and historical problems surrounding the two-state solution have become a matter of urgency.

The developments currently underway in the occupied territories have been incoming for some time. In the summer of 2014 the disappearance and murder of three Israeli teenagers Gilad Shaar, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach from Alon Shvut, an Israeli settlement in southwest Jerusalem and the kidnapping and burning of a 13-year old Palestinian teenager sparked the first of many acts of tit-for-tat revenge attacks and were a factor which helped catalyse the 50-day war. Paralleling the bombardment and invasion of the Gaza Strip by Israeli forces, protests and demonstrations condemning the military campaign escalated into violence after an Israeli settler shot dead an 18-year-old and injured three other Palestinians. Similarly the shooting of 21 year old Monir Ahmad Hamdan al-Badarin during clashes with Israeli soldiers in Hebron sparked weeks of violence in the West Bank in which several Palestinians were killed.

Image via Israel Today
Image via Israel Today

After the conclusion of the 50-day war, the tensions continued to bubble beneath the surface as exemplified by the tensions in Jerusalem from October to  December 2014. The protests, coined by many as ‘the silent intifada’ originated in the Shu’fat district and were shaped by cruel events which included a Palestinian ramming his car into a group of passengers waiting in the light rail station which killed a 3-months old baby and injuring several others (22nd October, 2014). This was swiftly followed by the shooting of a 14 year old Palestinian-American in protests two days later and  killing of a Palestinian man suspected of trying  to assassinate far-right Israeli activist Yehuda Glick. Glick, a U.S-born activist who was leading a campaign to dismantle the status quo on the Temple Mount established by Moshe Dayan in the aftermath of the  1967 War which forbade Jewish prayer and worship  on Temple Mount to ease tensions between Muslim and Jewish worshipers.

Following another car attack on 5th November, 2014  which left fourteen Israeli civilians  injured and one policeman dead Netanyahu contended that the lone wolf attacks were  ‘a direct result of incitement’ by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The prime minister’s claims were debatable particularly after the expansion of illegal settlements (a key factor undermining any potential peace proposals and widely consider an antagonistic act against the Palestinian population) had been occurring during protests. Days before the attacks  ‘an Israeli government committee on 2nd November 2014 advanced plans for five-hundred settler homes in East Jerusalem, an official said, in the face of disapproval from the United States at construction on occupied Palestinian land.’ This follows the proposed construction of 2,610 homes in the Givat Hamatos area which was disclosed by the activist group, Peace Now in early October.

The November 5th attack occurred hours after  renewed clashes occurred at the Holy Sites and the resultant shooting of the driver has resulted in more riots across the Old City, Shu’fat and Sheikh Jarrah. These lone wolf attacks climaxed when four Israelis civilians were  killed and eight injured as two Palestinians  armed with a pistol, knives and axes hacked their way through  a West Jerusalem synagogue  on 18th November.

However the surge in violence, protests and demonstrations by Palestinians has been mirrored by a surge in settler-led violence against the Palestinian population. According to  UN OCHA, ‘the number of settler attacks resulting in Palestinian casualties and property damage increased by 32 percent in 2011 compared to 2010, and by over 144 percent compared to 2009.’ while Al-Haqa, a human right groups based in Ramallah  ‘documented a significant increase in the number of settler attacks and in the severity of violence’ in the Occupied Territories. More disturbingly authorities have largely turned a blind-eye to the violence. According to a Yesh Din report, published in July 2013, only 8.5 percent of the investigations concluded by Samaria & Judea (SJ) District Police were indictments served against suspects who committed acts of violence. This was a poultry number when measured against 90.5 percent of all the investigations conducted which  were closed without an indictment being served against Israeli civilians acting violently against Palestinian civilians and property.

Image via NSNBC
Image via NSNBC

Recent incidents have illustrated the settlement crisis has only deepened. In July 2015, settlers murdered a Palestinian mother and her 18-month year old baby in an arson attack in Duma. Meir Ettinger, leader of the settler youths who conducted the attack, whose ideological views and previous arson attacks against churches and mosques were well-known by Shin Bet, remained at large until he conducted the terror attack. While the Israeli government condemned and described Ettinger’s acts as a terror attack, it was once again the actions of the coalition government that catalysed this savage inter-communal violence. On 29th July, days before the attack, Netanyahu had announced that 300 new settlements, following the dispute over territory in Beit El, would be relocated while also advanced plans for about 500 new units in east Jerusalem. This deadly attack was accompanied by the murder of a sixteen year old Shira Banki and the wounding of five others at a Gay Pride Parade by an ultra-Orthodox Jew who had been previously imprisoned for a similar attack in 2005.  Religious extremism in Israeli society is as equal a threat to innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians as religious extremism is in Palestinian society.

Nowhere is Israel’s military presence in the occupied territories  as marked as in Hebron. The city, whose name in Hebrew literally means ‘friend’, is a divided community plagued by violence, extremism, criminality, conflict over territory and inflammatory rhetoric that has so frequently encapsulated the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The city is no stranger to controversy and has had a tortured history since the beginning of the 20th century. However the results of the 1967 war, the continued Israeli occupation, and the enduring settlement crisis have catalysed the area’s transformation into the equivalent of Berlin during the peak of the Cold War; a fractured city. It is a microcosm of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider conflict is in danger of ‘Hebronisation’.


The reelection of Netanyahu and his determination to hold onto political power required forging a coalition government as the Likud party ceded  political space to ultra-nationalist groups, advocates of the settler movement, and ultra-religious parties including United Torah Judaism, Shas, and Jewish Home. In the process of creating this fragile alliance, Netanyahu made it clear that there would be no Palestinian state and drew extensive criticism for his last-minute attempt to hustle right-wing supporters by posting an inflammatory warning on Youtube that a high turnout of Israeli Arab voters would threaten the stability of the right-wing government.

Several members of Jewish Home have taken prominent positions including Naftali Bennett being appointed as Minister of Education and ethno-nationalist Aylet Shaked as Minister of Justice. Bennett has stated clearly “continuing construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank” will remain a priority and that he would “do everything in (his) power to make sure the Palestinians never get a state.” Similarly Shaked has been mired in controversy following a ‘631-word excerpt (which) called Palestinian children “little snakes” and accused Palestinian mothers of raising their kids to become violent martyrs. And, the blog post said, it read as “a call for genocide” of the Palestinian people.’

Such a statement would have terminated the career of most politicians. However Shaked’s popularity was elevated and she helped the Knesset pass a law that imposes up to 20 years in prison on people convicted of throwing rocks at moving vehicles and labeled the act as an act of terror stating “Tolerance toward terrorists ends today. A stone-thrower is a terrorist and only a fitting punishment can serve as a deterrent and just punishment.”  Given the Knesset’s questionable record of prosecuting  settlers for similar acts against Israeli soldiers and Palestinians, the widening of what constitutes a ‘terrorist’ to absurd parameters, the length of the prison sentence and the context under which Palestinians choose to throw stones, the law encompasses the intensification of the occupation under Netanyahu’s government and the increasing power of pro-settler movements and ideological hard-liners in Israel.

Image via The New Yorker
Image via The New Yorker

Is the re-election of the Netanyahu’s government a welcome prospect? Dr. Ahron Bregman, author of Cursed Victory: a History of Israel and the Occupied Territories, believes that Netanyahu’s reelection may be blessing in disguise for a renewed drive towards a two state solution:

“The coalition is…purely right-wing — and often religious — parties. Because of this, I believe that the international community will give the new Netanyahu government the cold shoulder…the Palestinians…must also compromise on certain issues…and not ‘use of suicide bombers to blow up innocent Israelis…now is the time for Barack Obama…to take the lead and apply the necessary pressure to the situation.”

The Israeli government has, historically, been dealt with in the peace process with the Arabs under a carrot and stick diplomatic approach. The 1979 Camp David summit led by President Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin and the signing of the peace agreement was the culmination of  nearly a decade of negotiations during the closing stages of the  Yom Kippur War. This process included  three other wars (1948, 1967, 1967-1970) fought between Egypt and Israel which left an estimated 10,000 Israelis  and 30,000 Egyptians dead and thousands more wounded; these are numbers that dwarf the casualties in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The peace process was also enabled by a  relationship between the United States and Israel which became increasingly fractiousness during the 1970s, and a right-wing Israeli government which agreed to withdraw from the occupied territories in the Sinai and dismantle settlements  present in these territories.

The initial military campaigns launched by Sadat and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in the opening stages of the Yom Kippur War shook Israel  to its core, despite the former’s ability to reverse the military gains of the Egyptians into a strategic victory. It was a humiliation for Israeli society, the equivalent of the United States’ Pearl Harbor, and a psychological victory for the Egyptians humiliated in the Six Day War (June, 1967); Israel’s military and political establishment had been dealt a bloody nose and its assumptions that their technological and military superiority could act as a deterrent against Arab aggression were discredited. The current state of affairs were no longer a sustainable strategy. In the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war attempts to stall the peace initiative of Sadat and the Egyptians and the failure of the Israeli government to adhere to American requirements led to numerous threats from the Ford administration to suspend U.S-Israeli arms deals. In return for their cooperation the Israelis were granted future military support by the United States, effectively a diplomatic bribe.

What we are now witnessing  is a similar unsustainable state of affairs as Yossi Melman contends: ‘The Israeli government continues to stick to the status quo as if nothing has changed…it is clear that the status quo is dying…Abbas and the Palestinians have also contributed to the situation…there is no willingness to deal with the bigger picture – the strategic reality.’

The Palestinians methods of resistance are currently semi-violent, they have not evolved into the suicide bombings of Hamas during the second intifada or terrorist attacks of the PLO in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The Israelis have injured and detained hundreds of Palestinians and the continued closures of the Al-Aqsa mosque to Muslim worshipers have fueled fears that extremists in Israeli society are attempting to change the religious order in Jerusalem that has endured since 1967.  The bottle-neck in Jerusalem prevalent during the ‘silent intifada’ has been broken and  Netanyahu’s government faces the prospect of a massive uprising if it is mishandled, an uprising Netanyahu has vowed to greet with a “harsh offensive on Palestinian Islamic terror…adding” that Israel faced an “all-out war against terror.”

These  inflammatory statements and the narrative of terrorism, while prevalent among policymakers, holds less sway than it did during the first decade of the 21st century, the second intifada (2000 – 2005) during the Global War on Terror and when  George. W. Bush’s administration (which held a substantially stronger pro-Israeli stance than the Obama administration) held power in the United States.

The situation has changed in the United States. The relationship between Netanyahu and Barack Obama has deteriorated dramatically since the 50-day war. The Obama administration has warned that Israel faces isolation by pursuing its  inflammatory settlement policies in October. Obama has also threatened to drop the veto at the United Nations Security Council that America uses to block anti-Israel measures, in response to continued rejection of U.S demands   regarding the Middle East peace process. This impatience with Netanyahu is unsurprising as the situation deteriorates on ground and abroad for Israel.  Josh Earnest stated in early October:

“The United States is deeply concerned by reports the Israeli government has moved forward with planning for settlements in a sensitive area which poison the atmosphere not only with the Palestinians but with the very Arab governments with which Netanyahu had said he wanted to build relations.”

The tensions and harsh rhetoric spilled over into bickering and  insults being flung between the Knesset and the White House. An official in the White House was reported to have called Netanyahu chicken s**t, while U.S officials refused to give Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon an audience with Vice President Joe Biden the former previously accusing  John Kerry of being “messianic and obsessive” in regard to the latest failed peace-talks. Kerry. the U.S Secretary of State was also forced to apologise for stating behind a closed-door meeting that Israel was actively becoming an“apartheid state”. This is not the first major U.S official who has echoed Kerry’s statement. Jimmy Carter, the very man who managed the historic Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel, stated in an interview for Prospect Magazine  that “…there is zero chance of a two-state solution…The Netanyahu government decided early on to adopt a one-state solution…but without giving them [the Palestinians] equal rights.” Similarly public opinion is changing, despite the powerful influence and allies Israel have in U.S Congress. As Fawaz Gerges argues ‘polls of young American Jews show that…many of them feel less attached to…Israel.’ Furthermore ‘over 40% of American Jews under thirty-five believe that “Israel occupies land belonging to some else,” and over 30% report sometimes feeling “ashamed” of Israel’s actions.

Image via The Times of Israel
Image via The Times of Israel

Obama is now nearing the final year of his presidency and the outbreak of hostilities between the Palestinians and Israelis and a looming third intifada presents an opportunity to place the Israeli-Palestinian dispute firmly in  the international spotlight. The Syrian conflict has been a disaster for the Obama administration and leading from behind in Libya has produced violent civil war in an intervention which Obama has openly admitted as being one of his biggest mistakes as president. The peace process will not be completed during Obama’s tenure, however as history has taught us Israel bow to pressure when cornered by the international community and the United States through a delicate combination of condemnation, casualties, tense relations with the United States’ and diplomatic bribes.

Obama struck an important victory over AIPAC by securing the Iranian nuclear deal and refused to be held hostage to local politics and directly challenged Netanyahu’s interference in American politics. Netanyahu’s crude diplomatic approach,  the international condemnation of the 50-day war,  and Netanyahu’s attempts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal  have isolated Israel diplomatically. Similarly his behavior at the Israeli elections,  his repeated dismissal of threats to curb settlement expansion, and the Knesset’s passing of legislation and laws aligned along disturbingly ethno-nationalist and racist lines have created conditions on the ground which are ripe for violent inter-communal conflict.

In-spite of  its technological and military superiority over the Palestinians, Israel has never been more vulnerable. The Israeli intelligence cannot stop a solitary and frustrated Palestinian from using a rudimentary weapon such as a kitchen knife, a car, a screw-driver, a hammer, a home-made Molotov, a stone, a sling-shot to make a political statement.  Asymmetrical warfare and counterinsurgency against protesters absent a political solution means perpetual warfare.  Adopting Yitzhak Rabin’s ‘break their bones’ policy and downgrading to sticks and cudgels to club and silence protestors, as they did during the first intifada, will only increase international pressure on Israel.  If the Palestinian uprising breaks out and is met with brute force it is the perfect opportunity for Obama to ‘translate his stated convictions into real policies’ and his ‘proposal must state clearly that rejecting American parameters will have consequences, such as the loss of financial support’ and set in motion transformative events in the occupied territories.

Flaunting  these proposals should include boycotts on products and services coming from the occupied territories and settlements, the latter of which represents a form of ethnic cleansing. ‘Ethnic cleansing is a well-defined policy of a particular group of persons to systematically eliminate another group from a given territory on the basis of religious, ethnic or national origin.’ Ethnic cleansing does not have to  constitute slaughtering an ethnic group to accomplish its objective. The settlement project, under the rubric of security, is demolishing Palestinian homes and seeks to eject local Palestinian and minority populations from the territories by encouraging or ignoring settler violence, intimidation, segregation, humiliation and imposing impossible living conditions on Palestinians in Gaza by completely dominating the land, sea and air surrounding the narrow strip.

Image via Middle East Monitor
Image via Middle East Monitor

Protests and violence in the West Bank are being accompanied by the legacy of the 50-day war in Gaza. The 50-day war was a draconian Israeli military operation which destroyed 20% of the Gaza Strip, the population of 1.6 million is set to increase to 2.1 million which is dependent on a trickle of humanitarian aid while reconstruction on $7 billion worth of damage to Palestinian infrastructure in the Gaza Strip has stalled. According to a U.N report ‘in the ‘abscence of sustained and effective remedial action and an enabling political environment…(with) virtually no reliable access to the daily lives of Palestinian Gazans in 2020 will be worse than they are now as safe drinking water, standards of healthcare and good education and the  affordable and reliable electricity  become distant memory.’  The deteriorating socio-economic situation in the Gaza Strip combined with an increase in population will breed extremism, desperation and further resentment against the Israeli security apparatus.

Similarly Israel faces a demographic time-bomb. The Times of Israel showed that ‘statistics indicate there are 6.1 million Jews and nearly 5.8 million Arabs living in the Holy Land, threatening Israel’s Jewish character like never before.’ The refugee problem, a product of the Jewish-Palestinian civil war and the First Arab-Israeli war has remained unresolved. The Palestinians (now Israeli Arabs) who stayed behind, after events in 1947-1948 forced around 750,000 Palestinians to flee, have grown from 150,000 to 1.2 million. In another generation or so there will be demographic parity between Israelis and Palestinians. Bregman argues that once there is a balance between the population of Jews and Arabs, Israel will face two options: ”one to offer them to participate in elections in which case you might have a Palestinian prime minister or to say no we are not going to let you vote in which case you are South Africa.” The latter option is the reality of apartheid.

Nevertheless dismantling the ruthless system established by the Israeli military administration  is one part of the problem. Kissinger’s general analysis in World Order raises concerns about the future of the Palestinians if and when they secure independence.

“Order…must be cultivated; it cannot be imposed. This is particularly so in an age of instantaneous communication and revolutionary political flux…any system of…order, must be accepeted as just…It must reflect two truths: order without freedom, even if sustained by momentary exaltation, eventually creates its own counterpoise; yet freedom cannot be sustained without a framework of order to keep the peace. Order and freedom, sometimes described as polar opposites, should…be understood as interdependent.”

Israel stands to gain little from its current predicament. It seeks to impose order but the occupation’s short-term efforts to contain and repress Palestinian nationalism, Islamic extremism, protest and violence is exacerbating the long-term problems it will face in the future. As Mark Fiore argues ‘this fight can’t be a good strategic move for the Israel. What better way to prolong terrorism and hatred than by bombing kids…leveling huge chunks of one of the most densely populated cities on earth…Are they trying to make a little Mogadishu on their doorstep?’  Paralleling this inflexible military and political approach is the settlement crisis which is threatening to undo partition of the contested land, and create a bi-national state. The two rival ethnic groups in a generation or two will live intermixed in the same territory in overlapping homogeneous enclaves– an artificially created Bosnia. In a region experiencing severe ethnic, religious, sectarian and political upheaval, this spells future violence.

Image via Jacobinmag
Image via Jacobinmag

However aside from the problems on the Israeli side the international community must have a plan for the Palestinians after peace. A peace deal should reflect ‘practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight’ and should be prepared in investing in a self-sufficient Palestinian state. The symbolic protests and push to overthrow oppressive regimes across the Middle East, while originally a welcome sight in regional politics, has been swiftly followed by counter-revolution, internal violence and civil war between political and religious parties vying for power in the political power in many of these countries. The moderates have largely been caught between the well-organised authoritarian security apparatuses and the radical rebel groups who, while possessing radical political agendas, are also well-organised military and political units. What would make an independent but institutionally and politically fragile Palestine an exception to the rule? Will Hamas behind its rhetoric that refuses to recognise Israel compromise behind the scenes?

‘The reality is not everything can be blamed on Tel Aviv. Political infighting, corruption and lack of civil society has fractured Palestinian society.’  There is a need for leadership in Palestinian society and the frustrations currently on display are as much a product of incompetent leadership as they are a product of the occupation. If the shackles of occupation are discarded can the Palestinians operate as an effective state without support from regional and international partners? After all regional Arab governments currently have their own priorities including democratic change, regime survival, counter-revolution and revolution and dealing with the threat of extremism and terror. The Palestinian dispute, while important, has lost its urgency in the Arab world as much as it has in the Western world. Rallying regional actors is equally important to a successful agreement.

It is the perfect storm for a crisis in the Holy Land. However within this storm lies the seeds for a potential renewal of peace talks and the two-state solution if the international community led by the United States (when combined with internal pressure by the Palestinians) force Israel into the corner of compromise. The Middle Eastern wars continue to escalate in their ferocity and a third intifada presents another potential challenge for policymakers struggling to navigate the overlapping conflicts across the region typified by sweeping change, heightened sectarian tensions and revolutionary politics. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, clearly, has not remained isolated from these regional developments and Netanyahu’s unilateral attempts to maintain the current order  have underlined and exacerbated the cost of the occupation for Palestinians and Israelis alike.  The two-state solution needs addressing urgently and the Arab-Israeli conflict remains an integral part of the current Middle Eastern wars and current events in the occupied territories emphasise the need to rejuvenate the peace process or usher in an entirely new peace program and address the bitter inter-communal conflict that has now rolled on for a century.

Matthew Williams

A third Lebanon War?

Thank you to Strife for publishing my extended article on the potential dynamics of a Third Israeli-Lebanon War. Strife’s ‘thematic focus is ‘conflict’ in all shapes, forms and senses of the word. Strife combine political, historical, literary, and philosophical approaches to conflict (among other things) for their readers. Their blog and journal aim to provide thought-provoking, unique perspectives in all our work.’ Highly recommended and intriguing content.


By Matthew Williams:


The volatile relationship between Israel and Hizbullah has worsened since early 2015 and has threatened to deteriorate into open war. A Third Lebanon War would have significant repercussions not only for Israel, but for the entire region. Lebanon faces a major crisis: it now contains over 1-1.5 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees; and its neighbour Syria is in the midst of a civil war that has left an estimated 240,000 dead,

Tension is growing between Israel and Hizbullah. This was underlined by the violence between the two parties in January-February 2015, which left two Israeli soldiers dead and threatened to escalate into open war. This tension could be the catalyst for the breakdown of the Lebanese government’s capability to control the civil war already spilling over into Lebanon. This is illustrated by the refugee crisis, the presence of extremist cells like ISIS in Lebanon, and the operations of Hizbullah and the…

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Questions for a Military Intervention in Syria

Developing Change

The world’s refugee crisis is, deservedly, getting a great deal of attention at the moment. The photo of the three-year-old Syrian Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach, has served as a major catalyst of attention on Europe and the US’s failure to aid refugees, primarily Syrian but also from a number of other conflicts. However, this attention to Syrian refugees has also sparked a number of responsesin a different vein, arguing that the focus on helping refugees is only addressing a symptom, while the focus should be instead on resolving the real cause, the Syrian Civil War. Those making these arguments have also used this surge of attention to revive calls for additional military intervention in Syria through the form of a no-fly zone. While this argument correctly asserts that the war itself produces far more human suffering than the inadequate aid to refugees, just because…

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The Syrian Civil War: The Failure of Humanity and Policy

Image via The New York Post
Image via The New York Post

The chilling image of drowned three-year old Aylan Kurdi has encapsulated the humanitarian catastrophe that is engulfing the Middle East and Europe while also demonstrating how Western policy continues to fail in the ongoing Syrian civil war.

Aylan’s tragedy is not a new phenomenon. His premature death in the Aegean confirms what governments have struggled to face, they continue to underestimate the harrowing Syrian conflict and the long-term implications it may have for the Middle East and Europe. The international community has long been desensitised to the pictures of children killed or maimed by ISIS suicide bombers or Assad’s barrel bombs. The people and its society have become abstracts, instruments of policy that have been caught between local, regional and global power struggles.

The response of the international community attempting to unite around Aylan’s tragedy to resolve the refugee crisis is a welcome change to challenging current policies and an apathetic mind-set to the Syrian conflict. However the need for such a grisly image to provoke a belated reaction speaks volumes of the indifference and resignation that has pervaded the Western world in the face of bloodshed in Syria in recent years. The image speaks volumes of our policy failures in Syria, the consequences of those failures for the wider region, and our inability to reshape policy into one that matches the realities on the ground.

Douma marketplace massacre (16th August 2015) Image via
Douma marketplace massacre (16th August 2015) Image via

There was little uproar when ISIS massacred 164 and injured 200 civilians in Kobani (Aylan’s home town) on 25th June 2015.  There was little uproar or public pressure to step up political solutions to the Syrian Civil War when Assad’s bombers indiscriminately slaughtered 112 of its civilians in the town square of Douma on 16th August 2015 in one of the more harrowing attacks of the conflict.  There was little uproar when Assad used napalm against his civilians in August 2015 and more horrifically in September 2013 when school children (including a seven month old baby boy) were brutally disfigured, burnt and maimed by the Syrian Air Force. As Patrick Cockburn summarises: ‘people worldwide have become inured to horrible things happening in the wars in Iraq and Syria’ and the fallout of the Syrian war, most notably the Syrian refugee crisis.

A core issue lies in how our foreign policy has jumped from one extreme end of the spectrum to the other.  In Iraq, civilians were collateral damage of a catastrophic state-building project, a self-inflicted mess where neo-liberal interventionism has scarred American and British credibility in the region. In Syria and Iraq we now wage a covert and endless war against ISIS, a symptom of the Syrian Civil War. In short the West, and in-particular the United Kingdom, is absent a coherent strategy which is frequently in contradiction to events occurring on the ground.

Civilians trapped between Assad’s ferocity and extremist rebel forces remain unprotected. Civilians remain besieged in city enclaves such as Aleppo, Homs and Damascus and continue to die under the barrage of napalm strikes, barrel bombs and chemical weapons while being targeted by an array of ‘moderate’ forces we support. These illusory moderates forces range from a shattered Free Syrian Army who fight out of necessity with battle-hardened extremist cells, Kurdish ethno-nationalists such as PKK, PYD and YPG that have ethnically cleansed areas of Iraq and Syria following the emergence of Islamic State, and Shiite militia that have slaughtered countless civilians. Equally the international coalition formed to defeat ISIS killed 125 Syrian civilians (January-July 2015) they claim to protect from ISIS. As summarised by Natalie Nougayrede:

“One of the most puzzling aspects of this new phase of American involvement is that it is in no way expressly intended to provide  protection for civilians. Yet it is precisely because civilians are not protected that Islamic State have been able to grow…Assad…cannot in any possible way be considered an anti-Islamic State weapon.”

Western policymakers’ and Western media’s obsession with the war against ISIS has distorted our perception of the conflict, worsened violence on the ground, and produced more refugees which Syria’s bordering countries Iraq, Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan can scarcely provide for.  Correspondingly a resurgent, but unwinnable, war on terror has, according to data gathered by the Syrian Network for Human Rights, distracted us from President Bashar al-Assad’s regime (which) ‘remains, for many Syrian civilians at least, the biggest threat to their lives. While the United States may be focusing its bombing campaign against the so-called ISIS, the terrorist militants are actually only responsible for a fraction of the civilian deaths in Syria.’

The West firstly underestimated the brutal counter-revolution of Assad (unconditionally supported by the Russian Federation and Iran) whose ‘readiness to literally burn down (his) country in order to cling to absolute power’ (Filiu, 2015) has produced grotesque political, extremist, paramilitary and sectarian violence. We expected the Syrian regime to fall ignominiously as Muammar al-Gaddafi’s Libya did, yet politicians did not pay attention to the Assad family’s natural tendency to be exceptionally stubborn both militarily and diplomatically, the latter of which has been firmly illustrated by their negotiations with Israel over returning the Golan Heights to Syria since 1967.

The Al-Nusra Front: Image vis The Telegraph
The Al-Nusra Front: Image via The Telegraph

Secondly the West and its allies such as Turkey and the Gulf States belatedly  funneled arms into the rebel groups before it fully understood the nature of the Syrian insurgency. This insurgency as early as 2012 has come to be dominated by Mohammad al-Jolani’s Al-Nusra Front, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ISIS, and other local extremist groups. The declassified U.S Defense Intelligence Agency (2012) document argues that Al-Qaeda in Iraq (refashioned as contemporary ISIS) ‘supported the Syrian Opposition from the beginning’ and that ‘Western countries, the Gulf States, and Turkey (were) supporting (the) efforts’ of ‘opposition forces trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the Western Iraqi Provinces (Mosul and Anbar).’ All these areas are now threatened by, or under the control of ISIS. The warning of this document, which stipulated that continued the West’s covert support for this opposition would ‘create the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi’ during the Iraq war and that ISI (now ISIS) ‘could also declare an ‘Islamic State’ through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria,’ has become a reality.

The moderate Syrian insurgents and the Free Syrian Army, under-equipped and inexperienced, turned to these groups and collaborated out of necessity to survive Assad’s onslaught. As a result the Syrian Revolution stalled, fragmented and ultimately failed while deteriorating into a brutal cycle of decentralised violence.

The gamble played by Assad to release hundreds of prisoners associated with terrorist cells like Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the early stages of the revolution to delegitimise the opposition by framing them in a terrorist narrative should not be underestimated. In May, 2015 there were many fears that the regime was buckling under a string of military defeats by Al-Nusra and the ‘Army of the Conquest’ after their seizure of key cities such as Jisr al Shugheur and Idlib in the north and an array of villages and towns in the southern Deraa province. Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus (Assad’s centre of power), home to the neutral Palestinian refugee population, has become a battleground between Islamic State affiliates and Assad’s paramilitary forces.  The continued threat of these groups to the regime disproves the myth that Damascus has been secured by the Syrian security apparatus gamble.

Bashar al-Assad
Image via BBC

Nevertheless Assad’s gamble has successfully divided the opposition and made moderates turn to alternatives that are equally as dismal an option as Assad and weakened the capacity for the international community to fashion a viable political settlement.  A military intervention against Assad, politically impossible and impractical strategically in current circumstances, will not solve the Syrian conflict. It would result in the death of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, more Syrian civilians and produce a new civil war between the splintered Syrian opposition and play into the hands of extremists such as ISIS and Al-Nusra that now spear-head the rebellion against the House of Assad.

Military options are being used, however they are focused on defeating ISIS, a bi-product of Syria’s instability not the root cause of the civil war. The West has strengthened ISIS by funnelling arms into ‘moderate’ such the FSA and Iraqi Security Forces, whose subsequent collapses during the Syrian civil war and ISIS’s Northern Offensive in Iraq (2014) provided the terrorist cell with a surplus of high-tech weaponery. However it cannot be forgotten that the ‘Islamic State of Iraq’ (“ISI”), as Filiu argues, was ‘one of main partners of Bashar al-Assad’s regime (and) Damascus was the main entry point’ into Iraq for foreign jihadists from 2003 onwards to undermine the U.S. occupation (2003-2011).

The surge of extremist organisations in the wider Middle East cannot, and should not, be entirely blamed on Western policymakers. It must be placed against the authoritarian regimes like Assad and Nouri al-Maliki which ‘played with jihadi fire to deny…substantial power-sharing.’ (Filiu, 2015) Western policymakers underestimated how secular authoritarians would use anti-terrorism narratives to further entrench their violent security apparatuses.

The international coalition is not designed to protect civilians from Assad, nor does it provide desperately needed financial and humanitarian aid to refugees. These military options of air-strikes and covert counter-terrorism operations are equally absent a diplomatic solution to the conflict which effectively means the coalition simply contributes to a conflict where no particular group can deliver a decisive military blow.

The pressure mounting on the Conservative government has forced David Cameron’s hand to provide resettlement to “thousands” more Syrian refugees in response to the worsening refugee crisis. Cameron has agreed to provide asylum to 20,000 refugees between 2015-2020, yet these are poultry numbers. Global refugee figures now stand at 51.2 million the highest since World War II . This looks set to increase and our admission of refugees remain pitiful numbers in a situation where, as Anton Guterres (UN High Commission for Refugees) states, ‘quantum numbers’ parallel the ‘quantum’ leap in the stakes of this regional crisis, one which has been grossly underestimated by policymakers.

Syrian Boy BeachThe language describing these people fleeing conflicts has to change. There is nothing wrong with what the majority of these people are doing and we should stop demonising these men, women and children. We should be thinking about a plan to integrate these refugees, the majority of whom aren’t just flooding Europe they are destabilising Lebanon (1.1 million Syrians), Jordan and Turkey which the EU has done little to address. This refugee problem has been dumped on countries throughout the Balkans such as Macedonia, Bulgaria, Bosnia as well as Greece and Italy all of whom are blighted by serious socio-economic problems and lack the capacity to deal with the huge influx of refugees fleeing conflict.

The majority of refugees are not a threat to the West, however they do present a big problem that cannot be ignored.  Humanitarian aid can become a substitute for effective and essential political and military solutions to the conflicts that caused the refugee crisis. Politically blind humanitarianism, failing to challenge our unimaginative air-campaign conjoined with ineffectual political solutions and framing the so-called ‘migrant crisis’ as a separate issue will serve to side-line an escalating war in Syria and exacerbate the refugee crisis.

It is not a moral argument; refugee crises, when inadequately addressed or aggressively attacked as a threat to particular governments and communities have caused violence, upheaval and instability. The refugee crisis in post-Second World War Europe as new borders formed led to a massive exchange of populations which sparked new waves of violence across the continent as illustrated by the civil war in Greece, ethnic cleansing in eastern Germany, Ukraine and Poland, racial, ideological and racial atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, and the First Arab-Israeli War.

Similarly in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, hundreds of thousands of refugees became a catalyst for the collapse of Zaire (The Democratic Republic of Congo) and Mobutu’s regime eventually producing  what Prunier coined ‘Africa’s World War’ as defeated Hutu Power extremists (a minority within a majority of the two million Rwandan refugees) sparked a local conflict in Kivu which, preluding collapse, was a combustible ‘zone of high-density population with demographic, ethnic and tribal contradictions.’  The local conflict, fuelled by Western humanitarian aid, in Kivu swiftly expanded into a bloody regional conflict across Central Africa which left an estimated five million dead. One extremely bloody civil war in a tiny country the size of Wales, and a subsequent refugee crisis in the Great Lakes region which was poorly addressed by regional and Western powers tore apart an entire region and shook the entire African continent.

The conflict in Central Africa in the 1990s and the Second World War are potent examples of when a refugee crisis can have disastrous consequences for a region that lacks the capacity to deal with millions of fleeing people who are moulded by persecution, desperation, and expectations. These examples, while historically different and contextual, still have lessons that can be learnt; we cannot underestimate the crisis facing the Middle East, North Africa and Europe and the long-term impact the Syrian war will have on demographic changes of the two regions nor should we consider the refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East as separate issues. One region will invariable effect the other as the original domino effect of the Arab Spring (2010-2011) illustrates.

Image via Time
Crisis in the Balkans: Image via Time

Closing our borders to refugees will reinforce communal tensions between arriving refugees and local communities, particularly in Greece (which is dangerously unstable) and the Balkans which remains in dire economic straits and continues to struggle to come to terms with the various ethno-nationalist wars of the 1990s.

The countries with less severe social and economic problems in comparison, such as the UK, Germany and France, with (to some extent) more tolerant societies must shoulder the refugees because they have the capacity to do so. In doing so they may lessen the likelihood of civil conflict in both Western and Eastern Europe. The refugees arriving in Europe are a small fraction of those currently in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.

Shutting out refugees and adopting an absolutist anti-refugee/anti-migrant stance in the name of security and an illogical war on terror will contribute to and foment crime, extremism, and terrorism if refugees are stranded in Europe and left to languish in squalid conditions, poverty and are isolated socially and economically. Integrating these people properly is absolutely essential, they must become a political reality that government’s cannot sweep under the carpet.  If not they will become a source of instability. However their integration must be done in parallel with searching for political solutions to the civil war otherwise it will further empower right-wing, anti-migrant parties in Europe who reflect the uglier side of Europe’s current political reality.

Taking in refugees fleeing from war zones and persecution should be priority but is the inability to solve the various political deadlocks and to challenge current Middle Eastern policies which remains the critical issue. By absorbing refugees we will be mitigating the symptoms of conflict. However absent a long-term solution to the Syrian conflict and a far-reaching social and economic plan for rebuilding post-conflict Syria, the number of refugees will increase creating underlying tensions between current and potential asylum seekers and local communities in Europe and the cycle of violence will continue.

Protecting civilians in Europe, Syria and Iraq should be our priority, not the war against ISIS which while a dangerous regional threat has become inflated by policymakers as a direct threat to Western security interests. ISIS is not a monolithic organisation and cannot be defeated by military means alone. Like a hydra, cutting off one head will only lead to several more to grow in its place, as the demise of Al-Qaeda and its replacement by ISIS illustrates.

Islamic State FlagAddressing its violence will require socio-economic solutions to rebel grievances as well as concentrated military pressure by regional and global powers to weaken ISIS. While ISIS should be a major regional concern, it should not become overly centralised in policy-making as it is not the predominant cause of civilian casualties. ISIS and its exhibitionist ultra-violence has served as a distraction from the continued havoc Assad’s state-sponsored violence continues to create which is accompanied by regional and Western military policies that have fueled violence rather than solved it. Marginalised civilians that are targeted by Assad and unprotected by the international community have swelled the ranks of rebels such as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front as a result.

The Syrian Civil War continues to surpass one deadly impasse after another. Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe has finally reached central Europe, the conflict’s brutality has escalated while the stakes have increased for all the major actors involved as Syria has become the epicentre of a wider regional conflagration.  The nature of the conflict and the accompanying regional threats determine that we cannot ignore or simply contain Syria’s fall-out anymore. As Peter Bouckaert argues the ‘consequences of a further meltdown of the Middle East cannot easily be contained to the region, as is clearly evident from the spreading insecurity and instability, the increasing refugee flows out of the region, and the growing threat posed by ISIS-inspired attacks.’ Similarly Bouckaert goes on to add:

“The complexity of the conflict in Syria is no excuse to look away. Civilians in Douma (and refugees making the hazardous journey across the Aegean, the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe) like other civilians caught in conflict, be they in Sarajevo, Gaza, the Negev or Baghdad, deserve protection. There may not be an easy solution to each conflict, but there are always measures that can reduce civilian suffering.”

Granted, it is impossible to remove Assad by force, but it isn’t impossible for measures to be put in place which protect displaced refugees and civilians from both the Syrian military and extremist groups and providing them with safe haven. The refugee crisis brings new dynamics to the conflict as each European country and its populations’ absorbing or rejecting refugees will grapple with the crisis in different ways.

The Syrian conflict and the subsequent regional break-down has produced, as Pankaj Mishra contends, uncoordinated violence and conflict that ‘future historians may regard…as…the third, longest and the strangest of world wars’ which stretches from Iraq to the shores of the Levant, to Libya and Tunisia in North Africa and all the way to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. These overlapping Middle Eastern wars, with their own specific revolutions, counter-revolutions and causes, have drawn in superpowers such as Russia, the United States, major European powers, and major Middle Eastern powers such as Iran, Israel and Saudi Arabia in different shapes and forms. It is an illogical and contradictory Middle Eastern war that may require illogical solutions that has always typified Middle Eastern politics.

It would be foolish to ignore the dangers presented by the Arab Spring and the subsequent carnage which, while difficult to understand, has logic to it. Security, counter-terrorism, surveillance; these are a reflection of the times we live in. However without constructive solutions to resolving the United Kingdom’s enduring polarisation on refugees and terrorism, we will always be reacting to threats, creating new enemies at home and abroad, and empowering those who hold radical attitudes and alternatives to solving the conflict on the political right and left.

At worst, we remain reactive to terrorist attacks (microcosms of wider violence in the Middle East),relatively indifferent to war crimes and atrocities and unperturbed by regional and Western powers tampering with the revolutionary processes underway in the Middle East. These are processes we have yet to fully understand, including the consequences and implications of the West’s current and recent actions in the Middle East.

New approaches are needed by the European powers while conventional policies in Syria (military, humanitarian, diplomatic, as well as our perspective on the war on terror) require serious reform and scrutiny. Such a reform would require a shift in the attitudes of Russia and the United States who, along with their regional affiliates, have fuelled the conflict. Such an escalation in violence, an escalation of the arms race between proxy states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, and an ever worsening refugee crisis can only spell further catastrophe if world powers continue to pave this path.

Direct military intervention is impossible, and should be avoided. Nonetheless there are certainly better avenues to solving the conflict then simply turning a blind-eye to Syria’s plight, bombing ISIS and crossing our fingers that our government will contain a monumental shift in Middle Eastern politics.

Image via Amnesty International
Image via Amnesty International

The tragedy of Aylan’s doomed voyage, his brother and mother’s death (and atleast nine others) and the tears of his father and a family who have lost everything have poignantly captured the Syrian people’s tragedy, the Middle East’s tragedy, and our policy failures in Syria. If this story and the harrowing images of Aylan, yet alone the countless other tragedies of Syria’s people that preceded it don’t change our attitude it is highly unlikely anything will change in the war. In such a case we will be sure to see more tragedies for the Syrian people such as Ghouta chemical attack, the napalm school bombings, the Douma and Houla massacres and other countless atrocities of a war that has now claimed a quarter of a million lives and displaced over half the Syrian population (21 million before the war).

Authentic refugees require our protection and humanitarian action remains a critical issue, but ultimately it is our policies, the narratives that drive our perception of the war, and our strategies that urgently require change.

Matthew Williams

Understanding the Drivers of Conflict in the Central African Republic

Image via The Independent
Image via The Independent

On 18th February 2015, I attended a talk led by Sarah Covington and Albert Caramés Boada to discuss the ongoing Central African Republic conflict and understanding the actors behind the violence in the regional crisis. Sarah Covington  is the lead analyst on the Central African Republic for the Country Risk Team at HIS which is a specialist intelligence unit that forecasts political and violent risks worldwide. Albert Caramés Boada is an associate researcher at the Groupe de Recherche d’Information sur la Paix (GRIP), working closely with the International Catalan Institute for Peace.

In sum, the speakers argued that it would be an oversimplification in any conflict to assume that sectarian violence is the singular root cause of conflict.

Firstly, Ms. Covington illustrated how there are regional factors which must not be overlooked. The geographical position and size of the Central African Republic emphasises this. It borders numerous unstable and conflict-affected countries including Chad, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and also endures cross-border interference by Ugandan rebel groups seeking to recruit disenfranchised refugees. She argued that the sectarian violence between Christian and Muslim groups in the Central African Republic is therefore not just a domestic conflict, it is a regional problem that should be addressed within a regional context and regional framework.

Next, Mr. Boada went on to highlight that while the focus of the conflict has been predominantly on the ethnic cleansing that took place in 2014, the crisis in CAR is rooted in deep seated economic, social and political issues which remain unaddressed:

“Negligence of development, the population, the lack of democratic traditions (particularly in rural areas), corruption has exacerbated the lack of unity inside the country as early as 2011, if not before then. Basic necessities are lacking and addressing the roots of the conflict means tackling the chronic lack of development in the country as well as solving the current conflict. The lack of political will and intelligence on the ground within the international community and their reaction to the current humanitarian catastrophe has been slow. Whilst the French troops were part of the solution In intervening in December 2013, they are also part of the problem as former colonialists. Preventing all-out war did not solve the underlying issues plaguing the country.”

In these circumstances, the ability to build a civil administration will be undermined in the short-term and long-term. Ms. Covington commented that it is difficult to build an administration if people aren’t being paid. The government’s limited geographical outreach (restricted to the capital Bangui) means that they are unable to restart the economy, especially if rebel groups are fighting each other over the economic resources. Even if a mandated constitution and foreign companies return to kick-start the economy after the elections, hundreds of thousands of Central Africans will still either be disenfranchised or displaced. Simply restarting the economy won’t solve the underlying issues.

At the same time, the U.N is struggling to provide funds to support their own soldiers, let alone to restore order and instigate the development projects which have the potential to provide a sustainable solution to the issues tearing down the Central African Republic. The result is the sectarian violence that we have seen escalating in the past year, which may not be addressed by the international community. If that is the case, the root causes of discontent will not be directly addressed, and as such, the future of the Central African Republic may remain tenuously unstable.

Matthew Williams

The Third Lebanon War: A Matter of Inevitability?

Image via Daily Mail

A third Israeli-Lebanon war would have significant repercussions for the regional dynamics of the Syrian Civil War, and for Lebanon.  With Lebanon awash with over 1-1.5 million Syrian and Palestinian refugees and a neighbour to the Syrian Civil War which has left an estimated 240,000 dead, Lebanon faces a major crisis. The tension brewing between Israel and Hizbullah, underlined by violence between the two parties in January-February 2015, which left two Israeli soldiers dead and threatened to escalate into open war, is a potential catalyst for the breakdown of the Lebanese government’s capability to check Syria’s violence.

While a third war has failed to materialise thus far, a future crisis awaits the Levant which Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Liberman has declared as being ‘inevitable’. From Netanyahu’s perspective, the Arab Spring has evoked only dangers. His response has been to consolidate Israel’s control over the West Bank by expanding settlements, increasing military spending and maintaining the status quo since 2011.

However the Knesset has endured a difficult 2015 which has posed question marks over the strategy’s sustainability. The Iranian nuclear deal has left the coalition government exposed to heavy criticism, cited from the left and right as a major foreign policy disaster which has compromised national security.

The potential removal of sanctions on Iran, a key sponsor of Hizbullah, will be a significant cause for concern amongst the Israeli security apparatus as the lifting of embargoes on conventional arms looks set to strengthen Hizbullah. However the implications of the Iranian nuclear deal, while important in changing the future dynamics of the Hizbullah-Israeli conflict, fails to take account of how Hizbullah has established a degree of parity with the Israeli military that was absent in the 2006 Lebanon war.

According to Jeffrey White, Hizbullah has unilaterally expanded its missile capabilities together with significant innovations in its defensive layout in southern Lebanon while their military support for Bashar al-Assad has meant that the group has gained considerable potential in offensive strategy.[1] Israeli intelligence has estimated that Hizbullah ‘would likely…sustain fire of around a thousand rockets and missiles per day, dwarfing the approximate daily rate of 118 achieved in 2006.’[2] Such an increase in military power means that major damage will be dealt to Israeli civil and military infrastructure while killing scores of Israeli civilians.

Covert Iranian support, while prevalent, has been overinflated by Western media. According to Uzi Rubin, it was ‘Syrian rockets (that) played the major role in the Second Lebanon war (2006), while Iranian rockets were practically absent from it’ as ‘few if any Iranian rockets hit Israel throughout the entire (2006) campaign.’[3]  Whether or not Iran covertly supports them or not in the next war will not deter Hizbullah’s capacity to do formidable damage to Israel.

An ill-timed military campaign designed to weaken Hizbullah, while considered legitimate to the hawkish Israeli government, will provide more problems than solutions for Israeli security, increase problems for its European allies, and further destabalise the wider region.

The Lebanese government and Hizbullah is struggling to provide for a huge number of refugees which has produced a major socio-economic and humanitarian crisis in Lebanon. This not entirely a new phenomenon, the Palestinians and its refugee population have, historically, had a difficult relationship with the Lebanese population and the new Syrian refugees provide a new and unpredictable dynamic to this relationship between local and refugee populations.

Image via The Daily Star
Image via The Daily Star

If Lebanese civil and military infrastructure and its civilians are treated in an indiscriminate manner by the IDF in the pursuit of Hizbullah it will create a new humanitarian crisis by displacing thousands of Lebanese civilians while undermining governmental capacity to provide for its Palestinian and Syrian refugee populations. In the 2nd Lebanon War (2006) the IDF severely damaged Lebanese civil infrastructure and displaced 900,000 Lebanese civilians and killed 1,109 civilians, a crisis the Middle East was able to contain.[4] These statistics may pale in comparison to a military campaign conducted in the context of widespread regional instability and a campaign which is likely to be more violent than its predecessor when led by the current right-wing Israeli government. Netanyahu’s coalition is drifting towards an open embrace of ethno-religious nationalism, continues to introduce increasingly blatant discriminatory policies against Israeli Arabs and Palestinians, and continues to use draconian military tactics (including the Hannibal Protocol) which invite international condemnation.

As the 2014 Gaza War illustrated the IDF had no qualms about obliterating entire areas of the Gaza Strip much of which remains in ruins and thousands of Palestinians homeless and dependent on a trickle of humanitarian aid. The historically indifferent treatment of Lebanese civilians and infrastructure during the 1st and 2nd Lebanon wars determines that the IDF’s conduct against them is unlikely to change.

Lebanese, Syrian and Palestinian refugees will be caught in the cross-fire and thousands will be forced to flee.  In the wake of three year old Aylan Kurdi’s drowning and the renewed international attention refugees have gained since early September Netanyahu has reaffirmed the Knesset’s policy of zero tolerance on providing asylum for refugees whom he contends will destabilise the geographic and demographic integrity of Israel. The alternative for these refugees fleeing a Third Israeli-Lebanon war is Assad and ISIS, an unrealistic alternative that may force thousands to flood Turkey, Jordan or flee to Europe. This will exacerbate the ongoing migrant/refugee crisis there and further destabilise a socially and economically fragile Balkans. The EU and the wider Middle East face enormous risks if Israeli-Hizbullah tensions escalate into open war.

A Third Lebanon War would only increase Israeli isolation while providing an opportunity for ultra-violent extremist splinter groups affiliated with Islamic State and radical jihadist cells to strengthen their position in a disordered eastern Lebanon, which remains fiercely contested by Lebanese Armed Forces and Hizbullah fighting against insurgents associated with ISIS who have been pushed into Lebanon by the Syrian military.

These are plausible scenarios as Israel’s stature in the international community continues to slide as typified by the wide-spread international condemnation of the brutal Gaza War, Netanyahu’s souring relationship with Barack Obama and his attempts to undermine the Iran deal, and the anti-Arab rhetoric he used against Israeli Arabs to swing the March elections in Likud’s favour. Is it possible to consider that a military stalemate in Lebanon and the diplomatic and socio-economic weakness created in Israel by war will provide a new opportunity for the Palestinians to launch a third intifada?

The Arab-Israeli conflict dynamic remains a dangerous blind-spot in the current Middle Eastern crisis that cannot be neglected. For Israel, war with Hizbullah will not only be a costly military confrontation. It will further damage Israel’s standing amongst its western allies who sense Netanyahu’s unilateral attempts to secure national security will trigger a destabilising conflict between Israel, Lebanon and Hizbullah at the expense of one of the West’s wider strategic objectives in the Middle East, namely the containment of the regional violence and instability.

Matthew Williams

[1] “A War Like No Other: Israel vs. Hezbollah in 2015,” last modified 29 January 2015, accessed September 14, 2015,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Uzi, Rubin, “The Rocket Campaign against  Israel during the 2006  Lebanon War,” The Begin-Sada Center for Strategic Studies, 71 (2007): 6-7.

[4] “Israel accused over Lebanon war,” last modified September 6, 2007, accessed September 14, 2015,

Winners and Losers : The Israeli Elections (בחירות)

Image via
Image via

The victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in the Israeli elections and an expected fourth term as the nation’s longest standing Prime Minister poses new challenges for the Israeli state, its citizens and the Palestinians. The gravity of Likud maintaining the mantle of political power, surrounded by the Middle East’s current revolutionary shifts, is significant particularly in regards to their fractured, if not non-existent, dialogue with the Palestinians in the occupied territories.

The formation of a new coalition including ultra-Orthodox, ultra-nationalist and right wing parties in the closing days and hours of elections demonstrated Netanyahu’s capabilities as a domestic politician in ferociously pushing for victory. However the cost was stark for the Palestinians as Netanyahu (dubbed ‘the hostile one’ by the Clinton Administration in the 1990s) declared dramatically that “If I am elected, there will be no Palestinian state,” as he made his hard-right shift. on the final day as Likud lagged in the opinion polls behind Labor’s Isaac Herzog.

Under severe pressure over the real possibility that he will lose the March 17th elections Netanyahu made a powerful appeal to his far right wing electorate by underlining that he will not impede Israeli settlers who intended to build more settlements in East Jerusalem. Bibi’s gambit paid off as Labor’s support crumbled in the late hours of March 17th after an a-typical last minute exchange of unpleasant remarks between various Israeli parties.

After the violent Gaza War, the expansion of settlements into the occupied territories, posturing against the Obama Administration, and harsh rhetoric in an inflammatory speech in Congress against Iran it appeared Netanyahu had done all in his power to isolate himself  and Israel in international opinion.

However Netanyahu’s heavy lean on security and presenting himself as Israel’s strong man served Likud’s interests by appealing to security hawks and those who place emphasis on Israel’s defence  despite the desperate last minute hustling of the far-right parties. Whether or not it left international commentators outraged does not matter to Bibi so long as his strategy paid off in the short-term. As Jeremy Bowen argues in his most recent article ‘most Israelis do not share the obsession that foreign politicians, and reporters, have with the chances of peace with the Palestinians….The record of failure has made them…cynical.’ Even those who desire the re-ignition of the peace process will have been left somewhat cynical by the result of the 2015 election.

Image via

The short-term strategies adopted by Likud to secure victory will have a significant impact upon the dynamics of the toxic relationship between the Palestinians and the Israelis. In short, Likud’s victory over Zionist Union will only deepen the troubles in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu did not secure a majority win and his alliance with ultra-nationalist groups and ultra-religious parties will exacerbate the problems associated with settlement construction in the West Bank, which runs parallel with issue of the Jewish state bill, and all but ignores the core issues of the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis; namely East Jerusalem, the burgeoning refugee population, and right of return.

With regards to settlements “To transfer its own population into an occupied territory is prohibited because it is an obstacle to the exercise of the right to self-determination,” is a war crime that falls under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Netanyahu’s appeasement of Jewish Home and other detrimental elements towards the peace process will only lead to the the deepening of the settlement crisis at a key stage of both the conflict and in the context of regional instability.

Synagogue AttackWhile Israel is relatively stable and the Palestinians remain relatively quiet at this moment, it would be foolish to ignore the simmering anger in the occupied territories towards the government that will form under the new Prime Minister. This anger was clear to see in the bouts of violence that have been committed by both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank since June 2014, the most dramatic of which occurred at a synagogue in Har Nof settlement, Jerusalem, where two Palestinians shot and hacked to death seven civilians and a policeman.

The riots, random stabbings of settlers and attempted hit and runs in East Jerusalem, which began after right-wing extremists murdered sixteen year old Mohammed Abu Khdair in July 2014, sparked what many called ‘the silent intifada.’ According to Dr. Ahron Bregman at King’s College London, an expert in the Israel-Palestine conflict and author of Cursed Victory: A History of Israel and the Occupied Territories believes that the summer of blood marked the beginning of a ‘Third Intifada’. 

Similarly the incarceration of millions of people in a tiny strip of land, namely the Gaza Strip, will inevitably spillover as demographics and pressures brought about by population growth will add to the already combustible mixture of future conflict.

Image via The Commentator
Image via The Commentator

The disenfranchised Israeli Arabs in the West Bank and Palestinians suffering from stark socio-economic inequalities cannot remain quiet, even in the shadow of Israel’s security apparatus. Israel risk both becoming an apartheid state, ruling as a minority over millions of underrepresented citizens and Palestinian refugees and risk creating a new Mogadishu on their doorstep in the Gaza Strip. The Palestinians have numerous issues to resolve in terms of factional divisions and have used appalling and unnecessary spectacular violence in the past to illustrate their frustrations as seen by the use of suicide bombers during the second intifada. However while Hamas is inevitably part of this problem, Israel will invite condemnation from the international community particularly if they repeat their strategy of reducing areas of the Gaza Strip (as they did in 2014) to the equivalent of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War and humiliating the Palestinians.

The elections will mean that the status quo will not change; the Palestinians will not be appeased and the one of the most brutal occupations in modern history will continue under the jurisdiction of Likud. Sweeping the idea of a Palestinian state under the carpet  will not change the fact that an uprising is approaching. Maintaining the status quo will be extremely difficult when status quos are changing all over the Middle East.

Netanyahu is not there by mistake,  he reflects the perceptions of many within Israeli society. The 2015 election was about standards of living, the price of food, economics: not the peace process which is marginalised and effectively a ‘frozen’ peace settlement. The left cannot to do things right now and arguably a victory for the left may have removed pressure on Israel to deal with the Palestinian question and also its nationalists and religious zealots who envisage absorbing the occupied territories for themselves.

International pressure on both the Israelis and Palestinians is more likely to grow in the future with the Likud party and the inflammatory Netanyahu in power, the latter of whom will take future actions that will inevitably invite external condemnation and pressure. Whether or not this pressure is real or words ring hollow is a matter of debate. This pressure will occur when conflict reignites between the Israeli and Palestinians and bring the necessary pressure on both parties to return to the table when the time is ripe for change.

Matthew Williams

Nation’s Fall: Civil War in The Cradle of Civilization

Image via
Sunni protesters wave Islamic flags while others chant slogans at an anti-government rally in Fallujah, Iraq, on April 26, 2013. Image via

Iraq has fractured, almost beyond repair. The strings that held the county together, namely the U.S-led occupation and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, have disintegrated and ignited an inferno. While sectarian  violence, which is crudely dividing Iraq into homogeneous enclaves, lies near the heart of the Iraqi Civil War, numerous other factors are fueling the war. Facilitating a solution to this complex conflict will be a major challenge to any policymaker.

Iraq is plagued by conflict and will continue to be, particularly if socio-economic grievances are not addressed. Whilst religion is a factor in the conflict, it would be an oversimplification to only assess the civil war along sectarian lines and the role of the Islamic State as mainstream media does. The resumption of severe violence  in Iraq (2013 – present), while inextricably linked to the consequential occupation of Iraq, is also connected to the wider crisis engulfing the Middle East and the Islamic State is a symptom of Iraq’s core issue; inclusion. 

Image via the Guardian
Image via the Guardian

The Arab Spring is about poverty, resentment, and economic inequalities. Socio-economic inequalities are the main driving forces behind the Arab Spring. They triggered all the original revolutions and it is the core problem of the matter which has made places like Iraq and Syria hot-beds for radicalism, allowed sectarian issues to fester, and sent shock-waves across the Middle East. In order to look for solutions to Middle East current and dismal predicament of perpetual war, pursuit of socio-economic policies must be adopted alongside military solutions for military problems.

Islamic State is a bi-product of the Syrian Civil War and it was in Syria where it was able to considerably hone its military skills and capacity. However it is also a product of protests which began in Iraq in 2012 when ordinary citizens frustrated by marginalisation, poor national security, poor public services, unemployment and naturally abuses of anti-terrorism laws took to the streets.

Under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, elections were plagued by corruption, intimidation and terror as secular and religious candidates were targeted and many were arrested and disqualified from elections under contentious pretexts of being associated with the former regime of Saddam Hussein. 

The UN and several other human rights groups, according to Al Jazeera, had heavily criticised al-Maliki’s government for executions and the perpetration of torture.

Torture Iraq
Image via Al-Jazeera

Prisoners, both men and women, were forced to drink copious amounts of water without being able to urinate, fingernails were torn off by pliers, people were hung upside down while being whipped and beaten with metal pipes and rods, they were punched, starved, raped, incarcerated in darkness, hung by the wrists, waterboarded and humiliated for their protests against what they perceived to be a sectarian driven, Sh’ia dominated government. As Arab journalist Zaki Chehab notes in Iraq Ablaze in his research of the 2005 insurgency ‘there is no underestimating the significance of honor in Arab society’ and al-Maliki’s excesses, particularly those of the militias, reminded protesters (an assortment of tribal, religious (including Sh’ia), political and secular protesters) of their perceived subjugation.

Between December 2012 and April 2013 hundreds of thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Anbar Province. They were frequently met with a violent crackdown by Iraqi Security Forces which, as the American actions did in 2004, ignited a tribal war as tribes of Zoba, Al-Jumeilat, Al-Bu Issa tribal factions joined to the Dulaim tribe  in engaging the al-Maliki’s security forces in Fallujah in late 2013. Attempts to pursue peaceful methods of protest had failed.

These major protests occurred across major cities which are now hotly contested arenas of war between Islamic State and Sh’ia militias allied with Iraqi Security Forces  such as Mosul, Samarra, Tikrit, and Fallujah. The latter, “the city of tribes”, the epicentre of the uprising against the U.S military in 2004 and thorn in the side of Saddam’s regime,  once again kick-started the revolt, this time against Al-Maliki’s government. ISIS took root in this revolt by allying themselves with the many  tribal factions opposed to the actions of Iraqi Security Forces.

The local  realpolitik (politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations), the dynamics of tribal politics in Iraq alongside wider religious, secular and national issues played into the hands of insurgents. Tribal leaders were more than willing to ally themselves with al-Qaeda militants if it meant they could consolidate their local power and autonomy. Al-Qaeda’s support uprooted and ejected government police and security forces from Fallujah during the Anbar Campaign. The Washington Post article by Liz Sly reported on 3rd January, 2014:

“A rejuvenated al-Qaeda-affiliated force asserted control over the western Iraqi city of Fallujah on Friday, raising its flag over government buildings and declaring an Islamic state….affirming the soaring capabilities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the rebranded version of the al-Qaeda in Iraq.”

While local tribal militia and militants also fought against the rejuvenated Islamic State it was unclear as to whether all the tribal fighters battling the al-Qaeda-affiliated militants were doing so in alliance with the Iraqi government.

The reemergence of spectacular violence was a symptom of  political gridlock in Baghdad and the violation by an increasingly authoritarian/national government of the unwritten agreements on the relative authority and autonomy of local factions and fiefdoms in regional provinces.

ISIS broke this rule in 2007 when they were formerly known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Despite ISIS providing protection to Sunni refugees during the sectarian civil war in Baghdad (2005-2007), the deployment of suicide bombs against Iraqi civilians and the execution and assassination of local Sunnis under puritanical Islamic law in their self-proclaimed caliphate in Ammaria led to numerous insurgent and tribal groups to turn against the insurgent group.

U.S forces under General Petraeus was able to exploit this opportunity provided by AQI’s political and military blunders during the Surge and inflicted a strategic defeat on them after he struck effective short-term political bargains with local warlords, tribal leaders, and Sunni insurgents. However if socio-economic inequalities and the issue of inclusion were not provided with a viable long-term solution, extremist groups could return to exploit it as exemplified by the current campaign of the ISIS.

Fast-forward to 2015 and ISIS control large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria in a self-proclaimed ‘caliphate’ which dwarfs the ‘caliphate’ established in the 2000s during the American occupation. The movement had learned  their lesson the hard way and edited their strategy as exemplified by the Anbar Campaign in early 2014.

ISIS’s brand of political violence is hardly Islamic, an Islamic caliphate is a secondary goal, the by-product of a good society (the primary objective) and one encompassing tolerance. ISIS have done little to realise their envisioned physical and spiritual ‘paradise’.

ISIS executions

As Sageman argues (through Mehdi Hasan’s necessary reading on ISIS How Islamic is the Islamic State?) ‘Religion has a role but it is a role of justification…religion plays a role not as a driver of behavior but as a vehicle for outrage and, crucially, a marker of identity.’ Hasan’s article goes on to quote Lebanese-American former FBI agent Ali H Soufan;

“When I first began interrogating al-Qaeda members, I found that while they could quote Bin Laden’s sayings by heart, I knew far more of the Quran than they did – and in fact some barely knew classical Arabic, the language of both the hadith and the Quran. An understanding of their thought process and the limits of their knowledge enabled me and my colleagues to use their claimed piousness against them.”

The disorientation can in-part explain why thousands of European and Middle Eastern citizens have decided to rampage and die across Iraq and Syria with Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and ISIS committing humiliating and brutal acts of violence in the process. The violence while disturbing  is neither ‘medieval’ or ‘barbaric’ nor an illustration of so-called ‘Islamic fascism’ as Kevin Mcdonald argues:

“Contemporary jihadism is not a return to past. It is a modern, anti-traditional ideology with a very significant debt to western political history and culture….When he made his speech in July at Mosul’s Great Mosque declaring the creation of an Islamic state with himself as its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted at length from the Indian/Pakistani thinker Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in 1941 and originator of the contemporary term Islamic state. Maududi’s Islamic state is profoundly shaped by western ideas and concepts.

Like Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, ISIS are the mutations of a western state/state-sponsored terror. The predominant drivers of  violence based on sectarian lines are the Iraqi government and the associated Sh’ia militia and extremists; the backbone of the Iraqi Army. It is undeniable that ISIS have perpetrated ethno-religious violence and ethnic/cultural cleansing against Sh’ia, Sunnis and Kurds as well as minorities such as the Yezidis, the Mandaeans, Assyrian Christians, Turkmens, and Shabaks.

However such is the fluidity of the organisation and the diversity of the recruits within its ranks it is difficult to suggest that ISIS’s objectives can purely be sectarian even if they propose to be an ‘Islamic State’. ISIS is not a monolithic organisation, it is a loose alliance of sub-factions, tribal groups and splinter terrorist cells united in name. Allies and affiliates will have different local and regional objectives and different motives be they secular, national or religious and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his clique have managed to some extent serve the interests of various local actors.

Iraq Special Forces
Iraqi Security Forces and Sh’ia militia have perpetrated human rights abuses and war crimes.

The violence of the Sh’ia militias has been frequently overlooked in our obsession to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. There are always more subtle actors and subtle horrors in war. Is it little wonder that thousands of refugees have fled the violence when the onslaught on Tikrit is being spear-headed by militias responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians in southern Iraq since 2004? The ethnic cleansing perpetrated by death-squads in the 2005-2007 war was not limited to Baghdad either; according to Ledwidge, Basra’s Sunni population had been reduced from 15% at the beginning of the war in 2005 (of a population of a million) to an estimated 4% whilst in Al Zubayr, its Sunni population lost about half  of its population by 2007.

The emergence of ISIS as a threat to the Sh’ia dominated government has led to a resumption of pogroms being committed against Sunnis and other minorities in southern Iraq by militias and gangs aligned with Muqtada al-Sadr’s party in government.  Al-Maliki’s authoritarian rule contradicted the plan to re-unify the country and meant that the Surge effectively prepared the country for potential de-centralisation and a second round of sectarian civil war. The incorporation of a mere twenty percent of Petraeus’s Sunni allies ‘Sons of Iraq’ into Iraqi Security Forces illustrated the reluctance of al-Maliki’s government to share power with the Sunnis, the prime minister stating: “You could be creating a new militia…We’re talking about 105,000 Sunnis who do not trust the government. They were against Al-Qaeda, but they weren’t pro-government.”

The government’s paranoia, opposed by moderate Sh’ia, has shone through in recent months. Amnesty International published a harrowing report, Absolute Impunity: Militia Rule in Iraq, a twenty-four page documentation of Iraqi Security Forces and affiliated militia’s (Badr Brigades, the Mahdi Army, the League of the Righteous, and Hizbullah Brigades) abduction, torture and executions of hundreds if not thousands of Sunnis.

“The human rights abuses detailed in this briefing are extremely serious and some constitute war crimes, notably the widespread killings by paramilitary Shi’a militias….Militias have been armed, and/or allowed to be armed, by the state; successive governments have allowed and encouraged militias to operate outside any legal framework…The existence of these sectarian, unregulated and unaccountable militias is both a cause and a result of the country’s growing insecurity and instability.”

Mass graves have been exhumed, bodies have been frequently found  in dumpsters, streets and road-sides and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has done little to reign in the rampant militias. According to the Guardian witnesses to a massacre of forty Sunnis said ‘gunmen, some masked, set up roadblocks and stopped motorists in the mainly Sunni suburb of Jihad, near Baghdad airport, demanding to see identity cards. Those with Sunni names were shot dead; Shias were released.

Image via Huffington Post
Image via Huffington Post

ISIS’s extreme brutality, its viral videos, and propaganda has drawn of our attention away from the violence of extremist Sh’ia. Cockburn quoted that the mass-execution of Iraqi soldiers  cadets  near Tikrit by a line of ISIS gunmen as they stood in front of a shallow open grave reminded him of pictures of the SS murdering Jews in Russia and Poland during World War II. The stories of Sh’ia militia executing civilians at road-blocks reminded me of Interahamwe Hutu paramilitary units (instruments of the Rwandan government) checking Tutsi and moderate Hutus’ identity cards at roadblocks before subsequently hacking them to death with machete during the Rwandan genocide.

This is not to emphasise that Iraq is heading towards a genocide; the point is that there are several narratives in the conflict besides that of ISIS and its particular brand of political violence. ISIS is a symptom of conflict, not a causality.

How does the conflict end?  It inevitability depends on the situation in Syria which has served as a destabalising factor to it neighbor Iraq. The international community has been left horrified by the Islamic State and Barack Obama has assembled an anti-ISIS coalition to ‘degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS’ in response to the Iraqi government’s plea for assistance after the gains of the fluid rebel movement. ISIS, in its brutality has alienated and turned a large swath of the Middle East against it (including the Gulf States and external influences that funded it in Syria in the fight against Bashar al-Assad). Military solutions must inevitably be accompanied by sustainable socio-economic solutions, development programmes and an effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programme and effective security sector reforms which accommodate local and regional needs of Iraq’s minorities, tribes and political factions.

Image via International Business Times
Image via International Business Times

The international community and the Obama administration cannot provide that directly with boots on the ground.The assumptions of the Bush administration, the waging of an illegal war in 2003 organised by the likes of Dick Cheney, Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz have left U.S credibility and ideals blood spattered and in the dust . The question as to whether they can even provide effective support indirectly is another matter. American air-strikes cannot win the political war in Iraq and the current process of arming the Iraqi government and it accompanying extremist elements and the Kurds may return to haunt Western policy makers. While the Kurds have a unique opportunity to build future Kurdistan and demand greater autonomy than before the current crisis from the Iraqi government, diplomats and non-governmental organsations alike have labelled PKK and YPG militant groups various actions against Arab populations as war crimes and campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

De-legitimising and defeating ISIS will require non-violent solutions, waiting for its revolution to crumble at local level (as it did in 2007) and accompanying this collapse in credibility with concentrated external pressure by regional actors using military force.

However if the political situation predating the conflict does not change, future troubles whether it is in the next decade or several is guaranteed.

There is no perfect solution to this inherently complex situation. The cost of doing nothing is high and there is no good option in Iraq. A violent Iraqi government? Carving up Iraq into separate states? A so-called ‘Islamic State’? Boots on the ground? Jihadists? The role of Iran? Either way the agonising evolution of the violence in the civil war will leave a deep wound on Iraqi society for generations.

Iraq as a nation may endure yet it has fallen from grace, it has lost something in the blood-bath and it convulsive revolutionary changes catalysed by the American occupation. It has been torn apart by invasive external actors and destroyed by internal actors both of whom fighting in the name of economics, sanctions, politics, and power.

Whether it be the neo-conservative agendas of the Project for the New American Century, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ‘Islamic State’, Saddam’s dictatorship, al-Maliki’s authoritarian mindset, or the Iranian ideal for a client Iraq dominated by the Sh’ia; warped ideals and supposed ‘values’ have torn the societal and cultural fabric of Iraq and its people asunder.

Image via
Image via

Indigenous cultures, ancient religions, museums, and historical sites, have disappeared beneath the boots of extremists, vandals and looters. Hundreds of thousands of people have vanished, permanent refugees displaced by the ferocity of two decades of constant war, the West’s destabilizing presence, and intolerance perpetuated by Iraq’s new political dialogues.

Hundreds of thousands are maimed, raped and wounded, others slowly die from US fired depleted uranium (DU) weapons or disease brought about by the lack of basic resources and food, and innumerable coalition soldiers, insurgents, jihadists and Iraqi civilians suffer from PTSD.  Thousands more families are homeless and their children’s futures’, as their nation’s, have been shattered by the realities of war.

Then there are the dead, the hundreds of thousands more faces of men, women and children that once encompassed a vibrant, multi-cultural, and largely tolerant society. They are gone, never to return. They are ghosts, victims of occupation, suicide bombs, increasing sectarianism, extremism, and war. Iraq endures, yet it is hollowed out and empty. This is the ultimate tragedy for the Cradle of Civilisation.

Matthew Williams