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 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

Distorted Narratives: The War of Supposed ‘Values’


As an onlooker, the attacks in Paris were concerning for a variety of reasons. They are a symbol of a world gone hopelessly astray and not simply because of the acts carried out on that horrible day. They have encapsulated the war of supposed ‘values’, they encapsulate the various extremes set against each other, deemed incompatible and incomprehensibly different from one another. Ultimately both ‘sides’ are as off-putting and unappealing as the other and hundreds of thousands of innocent people have died and are dying for it. Pankaj Mishra suggests perfectly that ‘rigorous self-criticism’  and new narratives must be established to resolve the problems plaguing the Middle East and Europe. New narratives, new solutions, new values, new leadership and new perspectives are needed.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo was an attack on free-speech and an attack on journalism ‘that mocked and satirized the far right as bigots, extremists and racists…They were satirists, and all people, systems and organisations should be open to criticism and mockery (so long as it sticks within the laws of the land). They were democratic in their ridicule and satirisation. No one was exempt.

However our own reaction to the attacks invited such mockery from Charlie Hebdo and exemplified the various extremes affecting societies across Europe and the Middle East.

The democratic West, a place of reason, individual autonomy, multiculturalism and freedom of speech against the rest of the world. It is a wonderful fairy tale that distorts the reality of a society plagued by instant expectations, conspicuous consumption, and mental, physical, spiritual (non-religious), financial, and environmental imbalances. 

These imbalances  are sold off by the many across the globe as an absolute, a universal comfort-zone, “the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence.”  The reality is ‘soaring unemployment, the unresolved crisis of the euro, rising anti-immigrant sentiment, and the stunning loss of a sense of possibility for young Europeans and Middle Easterns everywhere’ in an era of invisible bondholders, corruption and superficial forms of freedom, equality and harmony. These imbalances have fostered nationalism, separatism and extremism in Europe from a variety of angles. Our supposed paradise is a mirage.

This disorientation can in-part explain why thousands of European 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.

ISIS military uniform

ISIS in some ways are our reflection, our responsibility and our creation. The video of the Jordanian pilot being incinerated, like other videos, are adorned with images of jihadists wearing replicas of U.S uniforms, orange jump-suits associated with American prisons and symbols of Western misadventures in the Middle East in the last century. Combine these images and symbols with the likes of ‘Jihadi John’ and their manipulated version of jihad and glorification of anything but a ‘caliphate’ make for quite a graphic interpretation of the war of ‘supposed values’ between radical individuals and radical groups from every corner of the spectrum in recent years.

Sensationalism and the sheer scale of the crisis hitting the region has warped the way in which policy is developed and how we should perceive the Middle Eastern revolutions unfolding. ISIS is a symptom, not the cause of the crisis and bombing them into oblivion will not solve the deeper roots and causes of the Middle Eastern crisis nor defeat the hydra that is terrorism.

Cut off one head and it will be replaced by another. ISIS, like Al-Qaeda, is not a monolithic whole, it is comprised of a variety of sub-factions  which include European and Middle Eastern foreign fighters, methodical and ideological extremists, lone wolves, nationalists, aggrieved Sunnis, neo-Wahabbists, criminals, psychopaths, outcasts, students, women, adventurers and unfortunately normal people. There are always different motives amongst groups fighting and committing indefensible violence, particularly in the modern age. Motives shift and change depending on context and environment. This was a similar situation with insurgents fighting the Soviets in the Afghanistan War in the 1980s. Policies responses should reflect the diversity of the situation, motives and objectives of individuals and groups joining ISIS and other extremist factions.

At this current moment values and identities are cherished violently and the Western framework has never and should never be exempt from this volatile cycle. Joint at the hip Europe is in dire shape and the Middle East is gripped by chaos. According to the rules of history, our mutual existence dictates that what happens in one region, will invariably affect the other.

An individual’s values and beliefs, a state’s persona, an ideology and  cultural and religious identities are not set in stone, they are water shifting and changing, the currents can pick up dramatically and violently or drift eloquently and peacefully, they are constant and interchangeable currents depending on the particular juncture of a particular river.

The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta saw the decline of the former as a democracy and then an imperial power after misadventures abroad.

Russia has made the violent transition from imperial power to communist regime to dictatorship to kleptocracy (the latter courtesy of free-market capitalism and America’s victory in the Cold War) in the space of a century. America is frequently accused  by many scholars and journalists of being a sophisticated modern-day empire and recent events in Ferguson, the Snowden Case, and misadventures abroad have brought this into sharp focus at the beginning of the 21st century. The Roman Republic was not a constant and evolved into an Empire, Germany was not always (obviously) a fascist state, and Athens like Rome, made the transition from democracy to imperial power during the Peloponnesian War and a terrorist did not simply become a terrorist on simple ideological or simplified religious lines. Nor do they, once they form these off-putting characteristics, remain so indefinitely.

Leadership is lacking at every level externally and internally, with little or no convincing credibility or new strategies being deployed to solve the problems. There is certainly plenty of populist posturing by politicians and even worse European politicians who are willing to utilise security agendas and tensions between ‘natives’ and ‘Muslim immigrants’ to attract strong political support for far-right parties. Marine Le Pen, a day after the Charlie Hebdo offices were attacked offered the country a referendum on the death penalty stating that “The absolute refusal of Islamic fundamentalism must be proclaimed high and loud by whomever. Life and liberty are among the most precious values.” I shudder to think of the time when such a hypocritical person from any background or nation enters politics and obtains not only power but access to our security and surveillance systems.
Militarised police patrolling Ferguson, USA.

A ‘Fortress Europe’ or an ‘Islamic State’, excess security or spectacular acts of terrorism, Putinism or a floundering EU, and militarized police forces roaming American and European streets that quell dissent or terrorism (however you wish to define it) surely our choices can be better than this? The use of the word ‘anti-terrorist’ operations can easily simplify events and veil ulterior motives of parties involved.  These are presented as the only feasible options by leaders in our turbulent world. The simplified narratives are as equally debilitating as each other and ultimately nonconstructive. The violence is subtle or spectacular, but ultimately the same and the reactions depressingly familiar. That is the reality and these narratives can seduce all of us and I’ll admit I have fallen for many of them before as summarised by Chris Hedges.

“We fire missiles from the sky that incinerate families huddled in their houses. They incinerate a pilot cowering in a cage. We torture hostages in our black sites and choke them to death by stuffing rags down their throats. They torture hostages in squalid hovels and behead them. We organize Shiite death squads to kill Sunnis. They organize Sunni death squads to kill Shiites. We produce high-budget films such as “American Sniper” to glorify our war crimes. They produce inspirational videos to glorify their twisted version of jihad. The barbarism we condemn is the barbarism we commit. The line that separates us from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) is technological, not moral. We are those we fight….Terror serves the interests of the war mongers on both sides of the divide….Terror is the engine of war. And terror is what all sides in this conflict produce in overabundance.”

Whilst I disagree with some of Chris Hedges idea’s on other topics, he highlights the increasing importance and necessity of challenging dialogue and subject matter that is too often spoon-fed to us by both mainstream media and extremists. We are as bad as each other, we merely proceed in different ways and inflict different methods of violence. ‘The clash of civilisations’, ‘the war of the worlds’, ‘us versus them’, ‘The West’s war against Islam’, ‘Islam’s War on the West’, modern-day ‘crusades’ and ‘jihads’, the all-conquering hordes of ISIS rampaging into America and likely conquering Hawaii; give it a rest. Context and perspectives are needed.

Two so-called ‘sides’ unwilling to come to terms with their own innate flaws and who claim to represent a particular way of life are destroying the very thing they claim to ‘protect’ and thus hypocrisy runs riot. They feed off each other with disastrous results. Instant news undermines necessary critical reflection and unconventional approaches to the multitude of crises across the globe are not making unconventional headlines and instant, short-term solutions seemingly and consistently fail to accommodate the necessity of long-term solutions. The result is continuous war and violence and widens the various chasms of understanding between different communities, individuals and groups and silences those trying to bridge the various islets of discontent and radicalism.

There are thousands of people fighting these damaging and poisonous assumptions across the world. They must be heard more frequently as voices of reason and they must be heard more often. That is when the pens being flourished after the Paris shootings will become mightier than the sword. That is when the brutality of human existence can be replaced by the humane expression of our diverse cultures, our diverse beliefs and our best values and ultimately determine our progress. That is a beautiful dream. 

Matthew Williams

Empire’s Fall: The Extermination of the Armenians 1915


Armenian Orphans

“I have placed my death-head formation in readiness – for the present only in the East – with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language. Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who after all speak nowadays of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

Adolf Hitler

 The Armenian genocide was the first in modern history and the 20th century, a century awash with the blood of millions of innocent people. During the First World War the Commitee of Union and Progress utilised technological assets such as railway and telegraph poles and prepared the Turkish military and gendarme  for the extermination of a minority. This minority were the Armenian Christians and out of a population of  2,133,190 only 387,800 (18.2% of the pre-war population)  survived the massacres, executions, mass starvation, systematic rape and the deportations into the arid and unforgiving territories of Anatolia and Northern Syria . Over 1.5 million people perished.

Genocide may not be identical in nature, however there are harrowing parallels in how they are conducted as illustrated by Genocide Watch. Classification. Symbolisation. Dehumanisation. Organisation. Polarisation. Preparation. Extermination. Denial. İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti‘ or as it known in the western world ‘The Committee of Union and Progress’ (CUP) and the Ottoman Empire followed these precise and familiar steps.

The  origins of the  genocidal violence perpetrated by the Ottoman Empire are predominantly rooted in nationalism, class-warfare, imperialism, and war. By the late 19th century the Ottoman Empire, established in 1453,  was ravaged, over-stretched and on the verge of extinction. Revolutionary turmoil, western imperialism and ill-fated foreign wars had plunged the empire into chaos with entire regions and peoples in rebellion and/or demanding autonomy. It was in this atmosphere that the seeds for genocide were planted and rationalised.

The world’s oldest Christians, the Armenians by the beginning of 20th century numbered around two million based in eastern Anatolia. In the predominantly Muslim society Christians were permitted a degree of religious freedom in Ottoman society. However they were also required to pay a special tax in exchange for religious worship and to some extent were granted limited autonomy. Despite this they were routinely discriminated against, did not have the same rights as Muslims and were treated as second-class citizens by their imperial governors. Despite the discrimination and limitations imposed on the population, a prosperous middle-class emerged in the Armenian quarters in major cities and towns across the provinces.

As the Ottoman empire began to shrink in the 19th century  anti-Christian pogroms were frequently conducted to keep the minorities in their place.  These spiked dramatically between 1894 – 1897 where it was estimated that some 200,000 – 250,000 Armenians, Christian Assyrians, and Syrians were indiscriminately slaughtered and starved.

These massacres, conducted by Sultan Abdul Hamid II, were caused by defeat in the Russo-Turkish War conjoined with Armenian demands for improved civil rights, reform, and respect for their human rights. However the protests against the state as well as violent Armenian resistance against heavy taxation and Ottoman persecution culminated in a stand-off with the Turkish army at Sasan. This became the pretext for empire-wide atrocities to be conducted.

The Hamidian massacres bore two-fold significance. Firstly the Armenians and Christian minorities were scapegoats for the Ottoman empires struggles. Secondly it was clear that decades before the 1915 genocide, extreme state-sponsored violence against Christians, particularly the Armenian population had become second nature to the imperial government.

The Armenian Genocide
Victims of the Hamidian massacres (1894-1896) being buried.

Nevertheless while the 1894-1896 massacres marked a significant deterioration between Armenian and Turk, the 1915 genocide was far from a certainty. Too often genocide is regarded as an inevitable historical process, a unique set of circumstances where unique and unimaginable violence is perpetrated. While the atrocities perpetrated by the Ottoman empire in 1894 and 1915 rightly incurred both contemporary and modern-day revulsion from numerous onlookers, including war-time allies Germany, it is important to remember the context of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

This was the time of empire. Irrespective of the introduction of the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907, state-sponsored repression and slaughter of imperial subjects, ‘natives’ and ethnic and religious communities frequently occurred.

Between 1895 – 1910 King Leopold II was responsible for the death of eight million Congolese through forced labor, exploitation, torture and massacre in Africa while gathering a huge fortune in the Congo Free State.  Between 1880 and 1920 Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia’s persistent persecution of the Jews living in their empire resulted in thousands of deaths and the mass exodus of two million.  The reduction of the North American Indian population from an estimated 12 million in 1500 to barely 237,000 in 1900 remains a disputed chapter in North America’s harrowing history.  The British Empire have countless atrocities under their belt. For example between 1899 – 1902 they established the infamous term “concentration camps” during the Boer War when they incarcerated and starved 27,927 Boer civilians to death.

The list is endless. Extreme violence and empire walked hand in hand, had done for centuries and imperial violence was peaking in a time of revolution, proto-nationalism, and war. When placed in context Ottoman policy while utterly abhorrent by modern standards was hardly unique when measured against Western/European imperialism. Empire and colonialism was cruelty.

Turkey is one amongst many former imperial powers that have to reconsider and reevaluate its past. The genocide, while horrific, should not be evaluated purely through the narrow scope of Christian/Muslim divide. Hard-line and calculated nationalists played to passions of the greater population to meet their political goals.

Young Turk Revolution
The Young Turks Revolution swept them into power in 1908 deposing the Sultan.

The Young Turks played a crucial role in exacerbating anti-Armenian sentiment. ‘A group of reformers who called themselves the “Young Turks” overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamid and established a more modern constitutional government. At first, the Armenians were hopeful that they would have an equal place in this new state, but they soon learned that what the nationalistic Young Turks wanted most of all was to “Turkify” the empire.’

The Young Turks were central in the debate about how to save the empire from its destruction. According to Taner Akcam ‘various ideological currents came to the fore, whether Turkish nationalist, Ottomanist, Westernist, Islamic or some combination of these’ came to the forefront of the political debate ‘and each one had its own answer to the question.’

The CPU/Young Turks ‘wanted to create a modern state in which all citizens would be bound by a shared identity and on the basis of universal equality.’  This in essence created a forced assimilation program with the objective of holding together the fracturing Ottoman society. Realistically ‘these policies implemented under the rubric of an “Ottomanism”…were an effort to homogenize society culturally around an Islamic-Turkish identity’ (this was seen in how school pupils were educated) which directly attacked minorities’, such as the Armenians, Albanians and Greeks,  sense of identity.

 It needs to be said very clearly though the CUP’s ideology did not envisage a return to imperialism in its traditional form. It was strongly influenced by western ideological currents and Balkan nationalism which had emerged in the late 19th century.  The latter heavily influenced the various rebellions in Macedonia, Albania, and Serbia, tit-for-tat massacres between Muslims and Christians enclaves in the Balkans, and intrigued and influenced Turkish and Tartar intellectual thinking in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) led to a significant deterioration in the position of Armenians within the Ottoman state. These wars eliminated the Ottoman Empire from Europe, except for the eastern corner of Thrace, and disarranged the borders of the Balkan Peninsula. Islamic Slavs and Turks were either butchered or driven from their homes by Balkan and Eastern European nationalists (who were predominantly Christian).

Hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Turkey telling tales of slaughter and desperate for revenge. Paranoia and bitterness gripped an empire humbled by defeat and the refugees were resettled in central Turkey where the majority of the Armenian population dwelt. The refugees would come to play a pivotal role in the killings of the Armenians and seizing their property during the genocide became  a crucial component part in the ability of Turkish officials to whip up the passions of Ottoman and Turkish Muslims to conduct atrocity during the First World War.

Talet Pasha: One the key individuals who organised and rationalised the Armenian genocide.

In this poisonous atmosphere, ultra-nationalism began to take root in Turkish society with nationalist groups spouting out increasing violent and racist language against minorities across the empire on the eve of the First World War. Talat Pasa proposed that the country be “cleansed of its treacherous elements.” whilst Kuscubasi Esref, who later play a significant role in the slaughter, stated that anti-Ottomans were to be regarded as the empire’s “internal tumors“. In the name of nationalism the CUP began to construct solutions to the “The Armenian Question” as a national threat and security agenda.

Concurrently the Armenians and affiliated revolutionary organisations continued to make demands for reforms to the disjointed power-structure established by the CUP. Such reforms which were once again done between Armenian officials and European powers from a Turkish perspective envisaged the creation an autonomous Armenian state in Anatolia. This would in effect be a death-blow to the empire and a psychological blow to the Young Turks nationalist ideology. This national security threat, in their minds, came to legitimise genocide.

The Turkish military firstly target the Greeks and cleansed the Aegean region both massacring and deporting hundred of thousands of them. Wide-spread ethnic cleansing. This was done on the eve of war. Plans to remove the Armenians were drawn up, yet they could not be implemented through fear of foreign intervention, as European powers constantly demanded the Ottomans upholded their agreements to respect the rights of minorities.

First World War
British soldiers charge Ottoman positions at the battle of Gallipoli.

The outbreak of the First World War lifted all these treaties and pressures on the Ottoman empire. The Ottomans entered the war on the side of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Propaganda took hold across Europe and Turkey was no exception to that. The humilation and slaughter of Muslims by Balkan nationalists remained a fresh wound and it was utilised to ferment fanaticism and hatred against minorities. In an article titled “The Awaited Day“, Huseyin Cahit Yalcin stated that:

“The war had come like a stroke of good fortune upon the Turkish people, who had been sure of their own decline…the day had finally come…to make an historical accounting with those…whom they had been previously unable to do so (and) revenge the horrors of which had not yet been recorded in history.”

Ziya Gokalp wrote a poem calling for Turks to “Run, take the standard and let it be planted once again in Plevna (modern day Bulgaria)…let the waters of the Danube run red with blood…” whilst Galip Soylemezglu (a diplomat) stated: “350,000 Muslims were murdered in 1912-1913….those who committed atrocities were partially subject to feelings of revenge.

At the same time, Ottoman religious authorities declared jihad (political rhetoric used by the government) against all Christians except their allies who, for the sake of wartime objectives, turned a blind eye to the atrocities. Propaganda demanding religious war and most importantly revenge in an atmosphere of war played into the hands of those wishing to commit genocide. It was no secret that many officials and many amongst the population desired the extermination of the Armenians. The war also presented a chance for the Ottoman Turks to reclaim territories lost in the 19th century from the Western powers.

These hopes were dashed fairly swiftly following a series of damaging military setbacks. These setbacks, particularly the catastrophe at the Battle of Sarikamish (22nd December 1914 – 17th January 1915)  in the Allahüekber mountains and the Caucasus campaign, placed the Ottoman empire largely on the defensive throughout the rest of the conflict as exemplified by the Turkish victory over the British offensive in Gallipoli. Armenians volunteer units fought with the Russians against the Ottomans which convinced the latter (shaped by events at the siege of Van) that their annihilation was to be completed to preserve the empire’s internal security and the future of a Turkish nation.

After losing 90,000 soldiers in a single campaign the Turkish government blamed the defeats on a Russian-Armenian conspiracy and that Armenian soldiers fighting for the Ottomans had defected. Thousands of Armenian soldiers were tortured and executed for acts of ‘treason’ against the empire.

24th April 1915 symbolised the official beginning of the Armenian genocide and the radical  realisation  of the Young Turks ambitious social engineering process which began in 1908. Կարմիր կիրակի (Red Sunday), the day before the British landed at Gallipoli, began with Minister of the Interior Talaat Pasha giving the order for Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul) to be placed under arrest. 

Armenian Intellectuals
Ten Armenian intellectuals executed by the Young Turks at the ‘official’ beginning of genocide.

The Tehcir Law, a temporary law passed by the Ottoman Parliament on May 27, 1915 authorizing the deportation of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian population, authorised that the Armenian leadership (an assortment of clergymen, physicians, editors, journalists, lawyers, teachers, politicians, and activists) be deported and executed. By August 1915, 2,345 Armenian notables were detained, deported and eventually most were slaughtered in gorges near Ankara. The Armenians had been tarred with the same brush. 

The destruction of the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian leadership deprived the wider Armenian population of any effective leadership. The introduction of the Tehcir Law sealed the fate of the Armenians and began the process of an empire-wide program of deportation and extermination.

Telegrams were cycled around the empire to provincial and local governors instructing them to carry out the deportation and ‘resettlement’ of Armenians to Ottoman-controlled Syrian deserts around Deir ez-Zor and the surrounding desert. Those who refused to carry out these instructions were replaced and military and public officials who protested were terrorised by hard-liners.


Men, women and children were seized from their homes, schools and workplaces, evicted and their property on which they had ‘enriched’ themselves was redistributed to the Turkish population. Entire provinces were emptied of Armenian people between 1915-1916. Widespread destruction of the Armenian culture and heritage took place.  ‘The Young Turks created a “Special Organization,” which in turn organized “killing squads” or “butcher battalions” to carry out, as one officer put it, “the liquidation of the Christian elements.”

These death-squads escorted the Armenians to their doom or they were deported by carriages designed for goats and sheep on the railway to Aleppo and Urfa. The Armenians, naturally, had to pay for the tickets. Those who died on the journey without food or water were discarded on the railway to the horror of railway engineers who would discover the decomposing corpses.

A mother desperately tries to revive her child outside the city of Aleppo.
A mother desperately tries to revive her child outside the city of Aleppo.

From there the Armenians would be forced into the harsh deserts of Syria and steppes of Mesopotamia. The death marches were carried out with utmost brutality according to missionaries, diplomats and other eyewitnesses. Torture and executions (beheading, burning and drowning, death by clubs, swords, and pistol) were frequent.

“Here they died-slain by Kurds, robbed by gendarmes, shot, hanged, poisoned, stabbed, strangled, mowed down by epidemics, drowned, frozen, parched with thirst, starved-their bodies left to putrefy or to be devoured by jackals. Children wept themselves to death, men dashed themselves against the rocks, mothers threw their babies into the brooks, women with child flung themselves, singing into the Euphrates. They died all the deaths on the earth, the deaths of all the ages…”

This is one of innumerable testimonies by witnesses to the Armenians massacres. Elderly, children, wounded, and those unable to continue on the march were executed or abandoned at the roadside. The scourge of rape was perpetrated on a harrowing scale. Young girls drowned themselves to escape the soldiers and bandits who had forced themselves on others, those who escaped faced starvation in the mountains. Grotesque acts of sexual violence were committed as innocent women and children were humiliated by Turkish soldiers and police. The only refuge for the orphans populating the countryside were various orphanages, missions and hospitals dotted across the country.

Armenian ChildrenThe few thousand that made it to the desert (largely women and children) who hadn’t yet succumbed to thirst, disease and hunger were then to march into the steppes of Mesopotamia. Walking skeletons (perhaps 60,000) were forced on the final march to the camps in the desert where even Turkish soldiers struggled to fill the mass-graves quickly and efficiently amidst the stench, depravity and horror in the scorching desert.

Skeletons littered the roadsides and deserts, mass-graves were frequently found, and corpses filled the gorges across the dying Ottoman empire. Turkey’s diversion of resources to exterminate the Armenians (like Hutu Power and Nazi Germany) partly cost them the war and invited international condemnation as the Allies entered Constantinople. The deed, nonetheless, had been completed. An empire had fallen, a people had largely been wiped out and Turkey barely survived the harsh post-conflict peace settlement at Sevres.

 ‘The Turkish government does not acknowledge the enormity or scope of these events. Despite pressure from Armenians and social justice advocates throughout the world, it is still illegal in Turkey to talk about what happened to Armenians during this era.’  It acknowledges that mass-violence took place, yet it does not want the shame of genocide being post stamped on the Turkish nation.

They are not the only nation in the world struggling to come to terms with the atrocities they inflicted on other people; The Japanese, once an imperial power, have largely failed to compensate the Chinese after cutting a bloody swath through China, Korea and Burma committing horrific atrocities.

The Armenian FlagWhen applied to current affairs what can we learn from the Armenian genocide? The Middle East is rapidly changing, the maps that were drawn a century ago by Western imperialists have largely disintegrated amidst a series of overlapping micro-conflicts catalysed by the Arab Spring. It is currently a battlefield between authoritarian regimes, different religious sects and Islamic extremist factions with both belligerent regional and international actors acting from numerous angles.

National identities are at odds with religious, sectarian and tribal differences whilst civil society in the majority of countries at the epicentre of the struggle, most notably Syria and Iraq, have disintegrated. Religious and nationalist fanatics continue to run amok in the Cradle of Civilisation. These are revolutionary times. The hyper-religious divisions, the assortment of warlords, and sectarian division  in the Middle East has already culminated in bouts of genocidal violence and ethnic cleansing being perpetrated against variants of both Islam and Christianity (most notably Iraq’s Yazidi population).

These various acts of grotesque violence can often cement long-term animosity and reverberate if grievances are left to fester or are exacerbated by regional powers and parties seeking immediate political advantage. Overt focus on immediate security concerns and current affairs has somewhat distorted any sense of long-term strategy and impact as the crisis engulfing the Middle East continues to unfold.

The Middle East of the 21st century while partly resembling Europe during the Thirty Years War as supposed to the First World War is undergoing a similar transition. The United States’ declining influence in the region combined with the collapse of the traditional borders of Syria and Iraq established by the British and French empires has violently accelerated the process of fragmentation.

We may or may not live long enough to see the long-term impact current events may eventually have on relations between warring religious, nationalist and political groups and whether or not they may develop into a more sinister event in the future. Pessimistic no doubt, but the future is always unpredictable even if some do believe man has thoroughly ‘modernised’. That’s what some thought a century ago. The Balkans tragedy, while certainly not an inevitability, evolved overtime into genocide in the 1990s because socio-political figures failed to address  the historic traumas and grievances present in the region at the beginning and end of the 20th century. The imposition of the Communist regime did not alleviate these ills and eventually men exploited these grievances and tragedies of distant past for Machiavellian ends in the present.

Armenian Bones
Armenian skeletons in the Syrian deserts.

The Armenian genocide was the culmination of a variety of extremes plaguing a variety of regions across the Ottoman Empire. The empire’s extinction was inevitable before the First World War. With a rather simplistic interpretation empire is like baking a cake, it is relatively easy to put the ingredients together (if you can bake), however if you attempt to revert it to its original separate ingredients (never recommended) it becomes a prolonged, unpredictable, messy and pain-staking affair.

The Armenian extermination, the ethnic cleansing of  Ottoman Greeks and the established ‘exchanges’ of Greek and Turkish populations after the sack of Smyrna  illustrated that when a multi-ethnic empire’s key ingredients mutated into an assortment of national and religious communities motivated by identity politics, butchery was the endgame.

Matthew Williams

Conflict 2014: in pictures – Conflict Archives

Ukraine Priest 2.0

Ukrainian Revolution 2014: A priest stands between Viktor Yanukovych police and protesters during a historic regime change in February. The protests were subsequently followed by the annexation of Crimea and a tense standoff between Russia and NATO.

Syria Ruins

Desolation: The Syrian city of Deir Ezzor lies in ruins as the Syrian Civil War nears its forth year.

Attack Synagogue

18th November 2014: Four Israelis were killed and several injured as two Palestinians armed with a pistol and meat cleavers attacked a West Jerusalem synagogue.

North Korea

February 2014: Sketches by former prisoners in North Korean gulag camps published.


June-July 2014: Religious and ethnic tensions have reemerged between Buddhists and Muslims in  Burma with deadly consequences.

Americans Afghanistan

US Marines and British Armed Forces end their thirteen year stay in Afghanistan. Over 20,000 Afghan civilians and 3,479 Coalition troops have been killed since 2001.

Central African Republic

Ethnic cleansing and genocidal violence in the Central African Republic: Between November 2013 – March 2014 Christian milita, commonly known as the anti-balaka, fighting the violent Muslim group Séléka ethnically cleanse the Muslim population. Thousands of Muslims are killed by machete and hundred of thousands of Muslims are systematically removed from the country.


August 9, 2014: Shooting of teenager Michael Brown sparks protests and riots across the United States against police brutality, racism and fears of police militarisation.


From Russia with Love: Following the Ukrainian revolution Vladamir Putin and his ‘little green men’, annex Crimea sparking the Crimea crisis (February 23, 2014 – March 19, 2014). This has led to increasingly strained relations between NATO and the Russian Federation.

Iraqi Helmets

The Northern Offensive: During the 2014 World Cup, the terrorist organisation known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began a major offensive in northern Iraq against Nouri al-Maliki‘s U.S sponsored government. The latter’s forces melt away in the wake of ISIS’s advance and shocks the world.

ISIS execution

Viral Executions: ISIS have indiscriminately committed  war crimes against various Muslim communities including Sunnis and perpetrated genocidal violence against Iraq’s Christian minorities (most notably the Yazidi population). The neo-Wahabbist organisation have publicly executed POWs, journalists and humanitarian aid workers.


16th May 2014: Libya’s instability between 2011-2013 reignited civil war which is mainly being fought between Islamist forces and Libyan parliamentary forces.


17th July 2014: A scheduled international passenger flight from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur is shot down during the Ukrainian civil war/pro-Russian unrest, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board. The Russian Federation is condemned by the international community for supplying pro-Russian rebels.

John Jihadi

Jihadi John: A British citizen and a member of ISIS who has come to encapsulate ISIS’s violent rampage. He publicly murdered U.S citizens James Foley, Steven Sotloff, and Peter Kassig and British citizens David Haines and Alan Henning and oversaw the beheadings of 18 Syrian soldiers.

Obama Strategy

September 10th 2014: After a summer of blood, Barack Obama speaks to the American people outlining his plan to fight ISIS.

Pakistan Attack

December 16th 2014: Using suicide bombs and fire-arms militants from the Pakistani Taliban have attacked an army-run school in Peshawar, killing 141 people, 132 of them children. It is the organisation’s worst atrocity.

South Sudan

The world’s youngest nation South Sudan has been embroiled in civil war since December 15th 2013 between government and rebel forces. The ethnic groups (Dinka and Nuer) have been targeting each other and the resulting violence has killed thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands more.  Both sides have committed genocidal violence.

Climate Change

31 March 2014: A major report by the UN states that the impacts of global warming are likely to be “severe, pervasive and irreversible.”  On 21st September, protestors across the world stage the Climate march in the face of impending climate change.

Donetsk Protests

March 2014: Pro-Russian protestors occupy governmental building across eastern Ukraine, most notably Donetsk and Sloviansk. Over 5,000 are killed in protests and by the Ukranian Armed Forces, often indiscriminate ‘terrorist’ crackdowns.


March 18th 2014: President Vladimir Putin speech following the official annexation of Crimea.

Sydney Siege 2.0

15th December 2014: A hostage escapes the Sydney Siege. Three people (including gunman and ISIS inspired Man Haron Monis ) are killed in the ensuing struggle at Lindt Cafe in Martin Place.

Ebola 2.0

Epidemic: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have been afflicted by the worst outbreak of Ebola in recorded human history. The death toll from Ebola in the three worst-affected countries in West Africa has risen to 7,373 among 19,031 cases known to date there.

Yemen Drone

Drone warfare: The use of drones, particularly in Palestine, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan has been condemned by international onlookers, various journalists and activists as violations of international law.


21st January: The BBC state that there is clear evidence that Syria has systematically tortured and executed about 11,000 detainees. Syria has encapsulated the continued problem of the perpetration of torture by police, military units and governments across the globe.

Bring Back Our Girls

Nigeria’s insurgency: Boko Haram, the militant Islamic group based in north-east Nigeria, has cut a swathe through the country killing thousands of civilians in a wave of suicide bombings and armed raids. They have also kidnapped hundreds of civilians including young women and children.

Bring Back Our Girls

December Revelations: While unsurprising to the majority of the world, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the damning executive summary of its five-year review of the CIA’s detention and interrogation programme initiated by the Bush administration during the Global War on Terror.


A wave of anti-government demonstrations – the largest in a decade – has been sweeping through Venezuela since early February.


The 2nd Gaza War and the Silent Intifada (June – present 2014): The kidnap of three Israeli teenagers by Hamas inspired militants and the incineration of a Palestinian teenager by Israeli settlers helps spark the 2nd Gaza War and the silent/third intifada.

Matthew Williams

Palestine’s Autumn Storm: The Silent Intifada

Palestinian Throwing Stone

The shadow of Operation Protective Edge looms large over the fading weeks and months of 2014. It has in-part encapsulated the horrors and revolutionary changes sweeping the Middle East which John Simpson has correctly coined as ‘The Summer of Blood’. More importantly it has opened up a new phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a new intifada and how it evolves and ripens in both the short-term and long-term should be of important consideration to current policy-makers and the international community who wish to see the seeming impasse between occupier and repressed narrow.

The occupied territories have been under the Knesset and the Israeli Defence Forces’ control since  1967 (depending on your standpoint) in a conflict that has in truth been ongoing since the 1920s if not earlier. Nearly a century later in October 2014, there are mummers that the ‘third intifada’ is brewing in the streets of Jerusalem. This is a mistake. The third intifada began months ago with the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers (June 2014) and the immolation of a young Palestinian boy at the hands of right-wing Israeli extremists both events signalling the beginning of protests and riots in the West Bank and the 2nd Gaza War between Israel and Hamas.

Operation Protective Edge has left Israel open to accusations of serious war crimes.

The summer campaign  left 2,189 Palestinians dead (of whom 1,486 are believed to be civilians, including 513 children) and has stoked the flames of the the conflict.

Amnesty International have accused “Israeli forces of having ‘brazenly flouted the laws of war by carrying out a series of attacks on civilian homes‘ while the UN has accused Israel of serious war crimes in their indiscriminate targeting of the Gaza Strip. Meticulous evidence on the ground conducted by humanitarian organisations, NGOs, papers and journalists indicate this. The Russell Tribunal in Brussels produced an even more disturbing report:

“In terms of the crime of incitement to genocide, the tribunal received evidence ‘demonstrating a vitriolic upswing in racist rhetoric and incitement’ during the summer of 2014. ‘The evidence shows that such incitement manifested across many levels of Israeli society, on both social and traditional media, from football fans, police officers, media commentators, religious leaders, legislators, and government ministers.”

The Gaza campaign in the summer of 2014 was the extreme misapplication of the ‘iron wall’ doctrine which includes indiscriminate targeting policy that affects civilians as well as militants on the ground and the brutal Hannibal Protocol which is initiated should a Israeli soldier be kidnapped.

The casualties were avoidable. The IDF as quoted by Haaretz ‘introduced a document defining rules of engagement for the military during combat in areas of civilian population. It incorporates lessons gleaned from Operation Cast Lead’ where similar charges of war crimes were brought up against the Israeli military as well as in the 2006 Lebanon War.

The campaign has also, courtesy of the Israeli military, refocused the international community’s attention on a subject which had taken a back-seat to the violent shake-up of the geo-political shape of the Middle East in recent years.

Originally the violence appeared to have died down after the withdrawal of the IDF (26th August, 2014). However the settlement expansion as much as anything has provoked continued instability and drawn fresh condemnation as several nations question Israel’s seriousness in applying a successful peace-process (not for the first time). Israel’s policies clearly illustrate they do not want a just peace.

As with the second intifada, the violence continues to grow in the heart of Jerusalem, the protests and riots of which originated in the Shu’fat district. Significant events have already occurred which include 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 the counter-terrorism unit killed a Palestinian man suspected of trying the night before to assassinate a leading agitator for increased Jewish access to the site.

The state of crisis the Holy City finds itself in has led to repeated closures of the Holy Sites the latter of which was central (some argue), along side the collapse of Camp David, to sparking the second intifada in the early 2000s and let us not forget that the catalyst for the first intifada was a road accident in the Gaza Strip in the late 1980s.

According to Benjamin Netanyahu, the latest car attack (5th November, 2014) which left many Israelis injured and one policeman dead, is ‘a direct result of incitement’ by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. This was hours after renewed clashed 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. On 18th November four Israelis were  killed and eight injured as two men armed with a pistol, knives and axes attacked a West Jerusalem synagogue.

Thus far the situation remains bottled up in the capital, however it is likely that in the coming weeks and months the chaos will ignite the rest of the region as the spontaneous situation worsens.

Netanyahu’s claims are somewhat contentious particularly as criticism of the continued expansion of illegal settlements (a key factor undermining any potential peace proposals) has been occurring during these protests. Mere days ago ‘an Israeli government committee on 2nd November advanced plans for 500 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  the Givat Hamatos area which was disclosed by the activist group, Peace Now in early October.

The Israeli government by deliberately pursuing a policy of establishing ‘facts on the grounds’ is worsening the situation on the ground as the current semi-violent situation continues to deteriorate. This is inevitably tied with the fact that the Likud’s ‘Greater Israel’ project, its settlement project, its attempts to be rid of ‘the Palestinian question’ are doomed.

Israel faces a demographic crisis unless it implements a fair-two state solution. The Times of Israel itself states the facts (February 2014): ‘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, which has remained unsolved since the Jewish-Palestinian civil war in 1947 is hitting home hard as reflected in the increasingly draconian immigration policies and the continued construction of settlements in the West Bank. Even Shlomo Gazit, the military man who oversaw the occupation with Moshe Dayan and helped construct the ‘Operational Principles for the Administered Territories’ (which include direct instructions for ethnic cleansing in Fundamental Guidelines (2) and (3)) in October 1967 is now stating an occupation conducted in its current form cannot work anymore.

The issue will not disappear, Jerusalem and the holy sites as always is an important stumbling block in the peace process, but the crux of the conflict is the refugee problem. It will be the cause of future war. Part of this problem is the state of mind surrounding the refugee problem. Many, including protesters abroad staunchly believe that everything will be returned to the Palestinians.

The reality is simple, and it pains me to say this, traditional Palestine is gone, it is unrealistic to assume everything will be returned and to some extent the PLO accepted that in 1988. The 500 or so towns and villages they once presided in are destroyed or built upon and the Israeli state is not going to vanish into thin air. This mindset has to change, they have to compromise. So as long as the Israelis and Palestinians cannot come to terms on the issue of ‘right of return’ and the ‘claims of return’ the peace process is doomed and future conflict beckons which will benefit neither party.

The Palestinians (now Israeli Arabs one of whom was shot dead during current protests, Kheir Hamdan, 22) who stayed behind, after events in 1947-1948 forced around 750,000 Palestinians to flee, have grown from 150,000 to 1.2 million. This is 22% of the population that suffer horizontal social, economic and political inequalities will increase and with the introduction of separate buses for different ethnic groups, the moves by the Knesset to ban Palestinian political parties, and other inflammatory legislative acts in recent years this equates to one thing (if it hasn’t already); apartheid.

Synagogue Attack

Something invariably has got to give as poverty, hunger, deep horizontal social inequalities that would have Nelson Mandela turning in his grave, racism, and the continued growth of the Palestinian population threaten to construct as Mark Fiore quotes ‘a little Mogadishu’ not just on Israel’s doorstep in the form of the Gaza Strip, but also amongst Israeli civilians. Demographics are not on Israel’s side and they certainly won’t be in the future.

Constant insecurity, revolt, and violence is all that Israel faces unless it compromises. This can only occur under intense pressure from the international community as Israeli politics plunges further and further into right-wing territory.

True, the Palestinians have squandered opportunities for a settlement of which the current generation would only dream of. Israel for all it cruel projects and policies in regard to the ‘occupied territories’ has been willing to compromise in the past. The Palestinians unwillingness to compromise (in some circumstances rejected under very fair pretenses) and the current divisions in Palestinian politics between Hamas (who are unwilling to recognise the state of Israel), Fatah, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation have played into Netanyahu’s hands and used to justify the unjustifiable policies of occupation.


Accelerating events on the ground are inevitably attached to how the world governments react to them. These illegal settlement expansions, alongside the bloody summer slaughter and ugly racist (and occasional genocidal) incitement, has increasingly isolated Israel from the international community further. Sweden’s historic decision to recognize Palestine and the United Kingdom’s symbolic non-binding vote, supported by 274 MPs with 12 voting against are important. Sweden became first EU member in western Europe to make the move, the new government stating that ‘It is an important step that confirms the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, we hope this will show the way for others’.

What of the question of the contradictions in U.S – Israeli relations? The Obama administration’s relationship with Israel seems to have a hit turbulence in recent weeks the former stating that Israel faces isolation in the wake of 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 US demands   regarding the Middle East peace process as the situation deteriorates on ground and abroad for Israel. The rhetoric is  unusually severe Josh Earnest stating 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 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 seemed to have also boiled over in celebratory-esque tit for tat 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, whilst The White House refused to give Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon an audience with Vice President Joe Biden the former of who had previously accused John Kerry of being “messianic and obsessive” in regard to the latest failed peace-talks. John Kerry. The U.S Secretary of State was also forced to apologize for stating behind a closed-door meeting that Israel actively becoming an “apartheid state”.

However it no secret that U.S rhetoric is still being undermined by its continued logistical support for Israel. As Glen Greenwald puts it who covered the unique story of Edward Snowden; “Israeli aggression would be impossible without the constant, lavish support and protection of the U.S. government, which is anything but a neutral, peace-brokering party in these attacks.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise though as both the United States, the UK and others frequently supply Israeli Armed Forces with weaponry (the most prominent the Iron Dome missile shield) alongside intelligence. The latter in-particular (according to James Bamford of the New York Times) under the jurisdiction of Unit 8200 was accused by veterans ‘of startling abuses….that…the information collected..’ was being used ‘against Palestinians for “political persecution.”‘ Israel alongside the United States reputation is badly affected by the NSA scandal.

Historically the West has used Israel as a valuable buffer both in the Cold War era against the Soviet Union ideological expansion and post-9-11 era against Islamic extremism/conducting military operations in the Middle East. However it is clear that amidst an ongoing and growing Middle Eastern crisis surrounded by enemies such as Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, jihadist movements such as ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front, strategically the long-term conflict with the Palestinians is unfeasible (even if they do possess nuclear weapons).

A rogue Israel is the last thing the Middle East or the West needs right now. Certainly the need for a strong Israel is a necessity in the regional crisis but not a volatile one that acts with relative impunity. Clearly the patience of the international community is waning as it continues to become clearer and clearer that support for Israeli belligerence, war crimes and policies based upon ethnic cleansing is counter-productive in the face of changing public opinion, particularly in the European states.

How should the West react to the current intifada? With other matters consuming the Middle East, it will be one amongst many grave issues plaguing the Middle East, but it must be regarded as equal importance as the war against ISIL.

The Palestinians methods of resistance are currently semi-violent, they have not evolved into conventional modern warfare. The latter is inevitably a battle they will lose, however the images of Israeli police and soldiers repressing and killing largely unarmed protesters and civilians will serve to further add to the horrific pictures that have emerged from the Gaza Strip. These will ruin the country’s already tarnished reputation. How the fragmented Palestinian leadership and Hamas also react to current events is of equal importance if peace talks are to come about in the future.

The Palestinians must break the bottle-neck in Jerusalem and embark on a massive intifada (largely without weapons) and the illegal settlements must be boycotted by the international community as they are direct breach of international law. A local issue must become a regional dispute.

As Ahron Bregman states in his new book Cursed Victory: The Occupied Territories ‘the international community and particularly the U.S will have to be tough with Israel and when necessary bribe it into compromise…that if Israel, Jordan  Egypt can come to compromise…something previously unthinkable then so can Israel and the Palestinians.’

The influence of the intifada on world opinion will and has to be nurtured by the increase of both Palestinian resistance and attacks and the repression of Netanyahu’s coalition government which will lead to substantial international pressure. As of now events must be allowed to hold course as trying to establish a cease-fire or call to the peace table would only benefit the Israelis as a stalling tactic to restore control.

The strong party (in this case Israel) must have its arm twisted at the right moment by external and internal influences if the partition plan/two-state solution  is to work. Timing is everything.

Matthew Williams

New Enemies, New Strategies: The Dilemmas of Obama’s ‘War on Terror’

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

9/11 changed the world.  Major events echo through the pages of history, causing ripples decades or centuries later. Its secondary consequences are sometimes a direct result of the event themselves and driven by our perceptions of the significant incident. The more time that passes the more we can continue to analytically interpret the impact of 9/11. The globe enters a new phase in the ‘Global War on Terror’ with the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and various other Islamic extremists terror cells and ISIL have in many ways reopened the debate about the war on terror and without a doubt  poses the first serious challenge a terrorist organisation has given to the Obama administration. How Barack Obama tackles this threat will in many ways come to define his foreign policy as president and his role in the war on terror. 

Barack Obama has had a testing year. He has been questioned and criticised from many different angles both at home and abroad by the public, journalists, former and current politicians, myself on occasion, and even jihadists. Some regard his foreign policy as weak, others as necessarily restrained in these thoroughly complex times as the world drifts towards a looming global crisis.

The narrative of the destruction of the World Trade Center, the targeting of the Pentagon and United 93  is relived year on year to honor the memory of the  2,977 victims (including 373 foreign nationals) who were murdered that day. Internal and petty rivalries within its the White House bureaucracy had overlooked the escalating threat of Al-Qaeda. The presidency had failed the American people and  those culpable for this failure and the death of so many have yet to answer the questions.

These questions have not been credibly answered. Instead 9/11 heralded in an almost permanent war. America ignited its ignominious ‘Global War on Terror’ and a second dawn for Washington’s  excess use of military power under Bush. I have covered this in detail before so in short war crimes were committed, trillions were lost and several key officials have got away with war-profiteering and murder whilst destroying American ideals.

The first phase of the war against Islamic terrorism was originally successful in uprooting Al-Qaeda’s bases in Afghanistan and produced results. Twenty-two important al-Qaeda leaders were killed in a record number of 158 drone strikes which were carried out by the CIA in Pakistan in 2008. This was coupled with the death of Al-Zarqawi controlled a chain of regional terrorist groups across Europe, which carried out  several terrorist attacks in the UK, France, Russia and the harrowing  train bombing in Madrid in 2004. He was killed when a American jet dropped two 500-pound guided bombs, a laser-guided GBU-12 and GPS-guided GBU-38 on his safehouse  north of Baqubah, June 7th, 2006.

Relatively successful yet the costs were staggering and so destructive to American values and those who were caught between the United States’ military machine and that of insurgents and jihadists. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, detained, and tortured, thousands of U.S troops were killed or wounded and trillions of dollars were spent while nasty episodes involving military contracters such as Blackwater and Abu Ghraib prison came to encapsulate the horrors of Bush’s war in Iraq.

Iraq devoid of structure in the wake of ‘Shock and Awe’ became a hot-bed for insurgents and a testing ground for extremist guerilla fighters such as Al-Zarqawi’s Al-Qaeda in Iraq (now known as ISIL). The gains made by the Bush administration against Islamic extremism (which they in part created in Iraq) were overshadowed by terrible and often deliberate decisions that took an immense human, financial and political toll.

Obama stepped into the White House left behind by the Bush administration. The West was humbled by its ordeal in Iraq and Afghanistan and by the recession. What changed? How do we measure the difference between the Obama Doctrine to that of George Bush? After all Obama admitted earlier this month that he had no strategy to deal with ISIL. Should we assume that Bush’s war on terror for all its monumental flaws was inherently more successful than Obama’s?

This is where I am inclined to disagree with those who criticise Obama. Both administration’s have the same calculations that they are at war and they will use whatever means necessary to eliminate that threat. The difference is the methods involve eliminating it. The previous administration bludgeoned its way to ‘victory’ almost indiscriminately while Obama has adopted a covert strategy of engaging with Islamic extremism which limits the amount of American civilians and soldiers lost in the process. As former CIA agent Michael Hayden comments;

“And so, we’ve seen all of these continuities between two very different human beings, President Bush and President Obama. We are at war, targeted killings have continued, in fact, if you look at the statistics, targeted killings have increased under Obama.”

Obama prefers small wars from afar using drones and airstrikes rather than deploying American soldiers. He has even targeted American civilians involved in extremism. He rarely speaks of idealistic notion of uprooting regimes. The ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, black sites and detention areas have been shut down and Obama still maintains an equal level if not more ruthless efficiency in targeting terrorist leaders and organisations at a lower cost to the United States’ prestige.

Low intensity shadow wars, irregular warfare, untypical ways of waging military engagements seem more suitable in the hands of Obama. This can not be better illustrated by the successful assassination of Osama Bin Laden (May 2nd, 2011) by SEAL Team Six which stood in stark contrast to the failure of traditional military intervention in Libya in March 2011. Before ISIL came to prominence ISIL was decimated by United States Army Special Forces under the jurisdiction of the Obama administration. On April 18th, 2010 new leaders of AQI, Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi were killed in a joint operation conducted by American and allied Iraqi forces in Tikrit, northwest of Baghdad.

Overseas Operations Contingencies (a.k.a The Global War on Terror)

The military footprint becomes smaller and easier to manage locally, domestically and internationally while expanding the re-branded Overseas Contingency Operations (a.k.a War on Terror) to many more countries across the world. This can be exemplified by his statement that he will target terrorism anywhere across the world in his speech.

Team Obama employ an increasingly elastic interpretation of the 9/11-inspired Authorization for the Use of Military Force and expanded covert ops, special ops, drone strikes and regime change to peoples and places beyond the range of the original law, and certainly beyond the limited scope of CIA covert action under Bush. If critics of Obama were to call this ‘soft power’ think of it as ‘smart power’.

The Obama Doctrine rarely interrogates, it simply kills and as the result the drone-strikes have attracted much criticism and horror. The tactics of the Obama administration are still illegal and an affront to the U.S Constitution and in many ways the laws introduced by the Patriot Act have been tightened under the Obama administration. Yet the administration’s bombings pale in comparison to the Bush administration war crimes in Iraq, the use of napalm and chemical weapons in Vietnam and Cambodia by Nixon and Johnson, the leveling of Japanese cities by firebombing and nuclear bombs in 1945 under Roosevelt and Truman and other such crimes perpetrated by the White House.

However ISIL presents a new challenge to the Obama Doctrine,  the Overseas Contingency Operations and his past methods of waging war against jihadist extremists. The problem is simple. Unlike Al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab, ISIL cannot be defeated in the shadows. They are armed to the teeth with military hardware from Iraqi, American and Syrian caches, battle-hardened and a lethal combination of both guerrilla and traditional lightning military tactics. They also wear their war crimes likes badges of pride and are far more aggressive in promoting their ideology via propaganda than Al-Qaeda ever did. Obama’s every single move in the war on terror is now scrutinized.

If you bring down one enemy, ultimately someone even worse and far more powerful can replace him. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIL are an army as much as they are a terror cell and they do not campaign like Al-Qaeda who from their beginnings were covert, guerrilla fighters fighting in their various countries of operations (i.e Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, India etc.).

Then there is the second problem which comes into the equation that President Obama, like his predecessor, experienced; ideology. The fight against Islamic extremism is (as quoted in a previous article) the equivalent of a modern hydra. It cannot and will not be defeated by conventional military means.

As Jason Burke quotes “high-tech weaponry, militarism and eradication…may be useful to treat the symptom but does not, and will never’ solve the questions surrounding Islamic extremism which is flourishing afflicting the likes of  Libya, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Saudi Arabia and more. Al-Qaeda’s decimation has seen ISIL, the Al-Nusra Front, Boko Haram and others assume the mantle of waging  jihad. You cannot wage permanent war against ideologies and methods, it is unsustainable even for the United States, not just economically, but in the eyes of a war weary public.

The fascistic subversion of Islam into  neo-Wahabbist and neo-Salafist ideological cores by factions such as ISIL, Al-Qaeda, and various terrorist factions have to be isolated and destroyed. This can only occur with a substantial reform by states of various educational systems and religious doctrines across the Middle East which promote and staunchly protect radicalized versions of the Islamic faith’. This is best seen in Saudi Arabia a state that regards Al-Qaeda as an enemy promotes the 18th century Wahhabi version of Islam  to counter what it sees as the threat of Shi’a Muslims spreading their version of Islam, a main source of which come from Iran.

These indirect causes are bear greater significance.  Islamists, Salafists, Wahabbists, Sunnis, Sh’ia Muslims and more  are divided and while this remains there is little hope that the political and religious grievances will be resolved particularly when various segments of the Western population are misinformed on the finer details of how the faith works. Change must also be facilitated by moderate Muslim political and religious leaders.

This problem coincides with the continued way in which the West conducts itself in Middle Eastern politics which not only failed dismally in Iraq, but also in the wake of the still-born Arab Spring. The problems are vast and the solutions unattainable at present moment.  Destroying ISIL would not destroy religious extremism. What is required is  a combination of carefully planned short-term political plans and military operations with that of long-term educational and intellectual solutions to the problems from within and outside the Middle East.

On the other side the war on terror’s conduct  has led to many voicing concerns about the impact on civil liberties, the cost of the additional security focused changes and the implications of the invasions and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The episodes of Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assage, the militarisation of police forces in the United States and the NSA surveillance program are examples of these major concerns. In taking the fight to extremism (de-facto permanent war) we have been forced to compromise the democratic ideals and international rules we strive to live by. Is it a necessary evil to eliminate ruthless organisations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS?  Or is it a misguided strategy that fosters radicalism and creates enemies not just on a terrorist level but a state level? It is one of the big questions of our time.

President Obama lays out his campaign strategy for ISIL!/httpImage/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/16x9_460/image.jpg

So what are Obama’s solutions to ISIL? As he outlined and reiterated on the eve of 9/11 he will harness alliances such as NATO and the UN to contain ISIL and pursue the root of the problem which lies in Syria.  This is where ISIL’s main headquarters are located from which they are waging a three front war in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq. He also does not give ISIL any recognition as a state by labeling them what others (particularly mainstream media) and themselves call them ‘Islamic State’. It would also be surprising that Special Forces were not already on the ground, if not since the beginning of ISIL’s Northern Offensive as ‘advisors’.

The United States are one of many players in the current Middle Eastern proxy war but they did not ultimately create the series of interconnected micro-conflicts between authoritarian governments and the various Islamic extremists. The catalyst for these wars were ultimately the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011. The United States, like all of us, are sometimes witnesses to spontaneous historical events  originally beyond our control.

The question as to whether Assad will accept the invitation of U.S airstrikes in Syria knowing that they will potential target his forces as well as ISIL has quickly been identified as a serious source of contention. Inevitably the stance of Russia, Iran and China will be of crucial importance and a line the U.S government must tread with extreme caution. The Russian Federation has announced that any air strikes in Syria will be considered as an act of aggression.

However the United States must stop supplying weapons to hard-line jihadist and Islamic extremists in Syria, via their allies Qatar and Saudi Arabia, (who have supported hard-line extremists) such as the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.  Evidence on the ground and many newspaper outlets indicate that the Free Syrian Army committed to bringing down Assad work openly with the Al-Nusra Front. They also have a substantial list of human rights abuses and war crimes much like the Islamic extremists which according to Human Rights Watch include the execution of civilians and pro-government officials alike dating back to beginning of the war like Assad.

The U.S have been supplying the FSA and other factions opposed to Assad.

Using  broad coalition capabilities using institutions and rallying the international community (including Russia and China) is a more legitimate method of pursuing ISIL and ending the Syrian Civil War. ISIL would have no better opportunity to strike at America than killing, torturing and decapitating  ground troops. The Kurds are the last remaining reliable ally against both Assad and ISIL and supporting them appears to be the priority of Obama and Cameron. They must starve ISIL and the FSA of financial power, weaponry, address the political grievances of regional groups and powers and continue supplying humanitarian aid.

The default instinct of President Obama is restraint and analysis before action. He addresses the world as it is, not as he would wish it to be, a stance of an a-typical foreign policy realist. Deploying ground troops to depose of Assad and ISIL will not be the end of the regional conflict. The shale gas revolution means the United States is becoming  increasingly autonomous in terms of producing energy. This in turn easing its dependence on oil rich Gulf monarchies in the Middle East. Petro-politics still remains important but less so than it has before.

The previous administration operated as it would like the world to be, particularly in its effort to ‘democratise’ the Middle East which was a dangerous illusion when applied to the Middle East. The spectacular  failure is a major factor (though not the sole reason) in why the West stands where it is today in the region. Non-intervention and under intervention had terrible consequences in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s which was followed by over-intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan which has been again followed by military uncertainty over Syria and Iraq.

Desolation: Homs, Syria

Those who claim “If only Obama golfed less!” the United States would surely be able to fix things in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and any other trouble spot in the world are wrong. The Middle East’s current predicament is far too complex for even a super-power like the United States and President Obama to solve unilaterally  nor are the great powers solving a situation that has developed into a proxy war. The world under the Bush administration was far less complicated in the 2000s. The Obama administration cannot contain all foreign fighters who flock to the region. This responsibility lies with regional powers in the Middle East (some of whom are currently rallying behind the U.S to defeat ISIL) and the European nations including the stance of Vladamir Putin and Russia who are allies of Assad.

There are no simple solutions to the crisis and the question of jihadist extremism or and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Obama’s strategy for ISIL which includes using new alliances (even with Iran), using  multilateral institutions to isolate the ideological threats, and containment is effectively the only way we can fight terrorism at this current moment. Whether this strategy will be used simultaneously against the current Syrian government could have grave repercussions in the international theater.

It is not only exclusively the West that can solve the Middle East. The infamous ‘red-line’ of Obama in the wake of the Ghouta chemical attacks,  the consequences of deposing of Gaddafi in Libya and of-course the Iraq War are factors which should influence our thinking. We cannot remain disengaged from the Middle East, the humanitarian crisis and dangers to European security are too great a threat now to ignore  yet we cannot keep repeating the cycle of mistakes made in recent history.These are times where errors of judgement can be dangerous for the politically charged atmosphere across the globe blighted by nationalism, separatism, religious extremism and economic downturn.

New strategies for new enemies are required and Obama up to a point recognises that. How effectively  he realises these goals will be subject to scrutiny now and until the end of his presidency.

Matthew Williams


The Death of the Pax Americana: Obama the Realist?

The Westpoint Speech delivered by Barack Obama was certainly one that was necessary and one which directly addressed the burning question for some; namely what is the United States’ new role in the world both as a political and military force?

For many the question remains unanswered or the speech to them lacks a convincing amount of information to truly figure out the motives of the Obama administration within the halls of the White House. Obama’s conduct has been misconstrued at times, confused and to many uncertain particularly given the ‘red-line’ scenario that nearly unfolded in the wake of the chemical attacks in Syria, August 2013.

Military action was strictly ruled out by voices inside the military, Congress and that of Russia, China and the international community. The ghosts of the Bush administration aggressive foreign policy very much remain in the minds of Western politicians and U.S public. Thousands of American lives have been lost, billions of dollars wasted in questionable conflicts. The West has renounced its rights to intervene in Middle Eastern affairs since the defeat in Iraq (what else was it?) and the continued slaughter in Afghanistan from which the United States and the UK are ejecting from in late 2014 (by-enlarge).

In normal times Obama’s thinking and words would have been considered a merit amongst many, the media, and the world. Unfortunately these are not normal times. The 2nd Ukrainian Civil War (what else is it?) or as Kiev would have us call it ‘counter-terrorism operations’, between the pro-Western government and pro-Russian seperatists has shook Eastern Europe and relations between the Russian Federation and NATO are at their worst since the end of the Cold War.

This is coupled with the increased tension between Japan and China over territorial disputes in the South-Asia Pacific Region and the chaos in the Middle East where unchecked regional aggression threatens to boil over into a far more serious regional conflict. The Arab Spring is static in the bleakest of mid-winters.


Then there is the infamous ‘War on Terror’, a conflict against insurgent groups across the globe, a threat of which has increased in the blood-shed across the Middle East and Africa. The latter has witnessed the alarming rise in extremist Islamism, most notoriously Al-Shaabab and Boko Haram who cut a swath through Somalia, Kenya and Nigeria in a wave of suicide attacks, kidnappings, mass-shooting, and drug trafficking whilst recruiting disenchanted youths to their largely unholy, extremist cause.

Yes, these are anything but normal times. The 9/11 decade has re-shaped the 21st century and Obama is in an unwinnable situation of suffering from the mistakes of the Bush administrations violations of international law (though Obama has committed a few violations himself) and the worst recession since the Great Depression of 1929.

Undoubtedly the Obama administration has made key mistakes that make it a target for criticism. Guantanamo Bay, a focal point for criticism of the previous White House administrations remains open, even though Obama promised it would be shut down. Likewise his economic policies have not taken off as they would have liked as the U.S buckles under potentially ruinous debt in its trillions.

Nor can his response in the Syrian Civil War encouraged onlookers that they can look to the USA for support, even it is in a package bundle of $5 billion. Afghan and Iraq security forces hardly gave anyone conviction that they could secure the new ‘democractic’ beacons created by the USA, UK and NATO.

However in regard to U.S foreign policy in the last decade the criticism of their neo-imperialism, interference, non-conformity to international law and militarism reached an absolute crescendo not witnessed since Vietnam. To continue a staunch military stance and use bellicose words such as Bush did in the wake of 9/11 would only further many’s disdain for the United States’s foreign policy. If anything Obama is attempting to collect the pieces of a now redundant foreign policy option.

The Washington Post recently stated that ‘This binding of U.S. power places Mr. Obama at odds with every U.S. president since World War II. In effect, he ruled out interventions to stop genocide or reverse aggression absent a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or a multilateral initiative.’

Obama is not at odds with former presidents foreign policies in regard to interventions. When George Bush Senior invaded Somalia in the 1990s and Clinton continued the U.N operation how did they fare? They merely undermined the U.N mission and single-handedly scapegoated the United Nations for their hot-headed unilateral operations absent regard for U.N regulations. Somalia remains a desolate region, conflict unresolved and Al-Shaabab has only strengthened. Did Clinton halt the Rwandan genocide in 1994 which completely destabilized the region, which in part still suffers twenty years on?

When Clinton administration did intervene along with NATO in the Balkans in the 1990s during the Bosnian Civil War, they intervened only when it was too late and drowning in evidence that suggested they could have and should have intervened sooner. The victory over the Serbian nationalists was glossed in blood, a Pyrrhic victory.

We don’t even need to go into the end results of Lyndon Johnson’s decision to invade Vietnam and the cost for both South-East Asia and the United States politically, militarily and economically. Besides that the United States has never intervened to directly halt genocide so Obama is not acting different to what other president’s do, whereby he promotes national interest above that of other countries across the world. It is how American foreign policy, however ‘exceptionalist’ or questionable, has largely operated since it assumed leading power role in 1919.

When the United States sits backs, we cry cowardice, uncertainty or retreat, evading responsibility yet when they attack we cry war-mongers, militarism, interference, and state that the United States over-reaches. It is one of the most complex arguments of the international arena.

The United States is, along with the Russian Federation,  by no accounts is in any shape or form doing its best to remove the sting from the Ukrainian crisis. Both sides are equally culpable in pushing Ukraine towards civil war. The leaders of both the United States and the EU have turned a blind eye to the dangerous elements within the interim Ukrainian government which have to be isolated whilst Putin has quite obviously, even if Crimea is historically a monument to Russian nationalism and predominantly Russian, flouted international law.

What we are witnessing in the 21st century is  a marked decline in the idea that reciprocal hegemony and liberalism in international relations are realistic. It is an unrealizable dream, a dangerous illusion, that politics like human nature is rooted in self-interest, and self-centered objectivity and most big powers players will do anything to hold on to their position on the international stage. Unilateral power-politics either of a military or arbitrary nature still and probably will always trump economic and soft power.  

Critics of Obama state that he is de-facto abandoning Ukraine, and that in short only U.S interests, core interests and that of NATO are of primary concern to the United States, that the U.S.A has become in foreign policy as uncertain as it has ever been even weak, a slumbering giant when the right are adamant that this is a time in which the United States should be at its firmest abroad.

Ukraine is of our concern undoubtedly, but realistically what can military force do in Ukraine but enrage the Russian Federation and push us closer to the unimaginable? Ukraine, though a borderland between western and eastern Europe, lies within Russia’s sphere whether the most uncertain of European Union’s would like it or not. Besides that as stated in previous articles the West and the United States lacks both moral and economic leverage with which it can use full capapcity to influence what happens in Ukraine. Nor can we rule out the geographical military advantage Russia possesses unless you bring in the quite ludicrous consideration of nuclear missiles.

The United States is the most powerful military force on the planet. Its budget exceeds half the world’s total military capabilities. If Obama and the U.S.A would wish to use it they could. Mark Mardell sums it up rather well:

“Obama’s paradox is that he is commander-in-chief of the most powerful military ever known, in a country that doesn’t want to go to war. So he uses a simple saying to reinforce his point – just because you can fight, and would probably win, it doesn’t mean you have to do so.”

The use of military force is not necessarily always the correct solution to a civil war or a military crisis. If Obama pulls off a deal with Iran, his critics will fall silent. You can have a Plan A whereby invasion and deployment of troops is done effectively and the war is won. The problem is as seen in Iraq, Somalia and Vietnam; an effective Plan B, C, and D were lacking. What do you do afterwards? How do you calculate how a population reacts to occupation under foreigners who we may have no cultural affiliation or understanding of and with? How do you consolidate victory in modern war and conflict, when concepts of insurgency and terrorism is entering a new phase?

This is something that even a giant, be it Russia, the United States and China, would struggle with at varying degrees as traditional military conflict is a dying entity and containing a occupied population fraught with more difficulty than ever before.  Obama highlights this at West Point referencing the power of the individual in the modern world. It can vary from it most volatile to 9/11 and further illustrated by Woolwich, 7/7, Mumbai, Madrid, Volgograd  or simply social media, a click of a button,  the power to express yourself  at your fingertips in the form of a keyboard.

It has never been an easier time to express your opinions no matter how moderate or radical. This is a very difficult thing for states to fight, which is both a good and bad thing as a pardigm must exist between a state and civilians where mutual interests are respected (the world’s most difficult balance).

Certainly the U.S and Obama are reacting to events rather than preparing for them and the mistakes of the administration are laid bare for all to see. The reversal in Syria springs to mind as does the contradictory statements coming out the White House that Al-Qaeda is a vanquished organisation whilst at the same time a ‘hydra-headed entity’.  Extremist Islam has never been so powerful despite its civil war. There is a degree of uncertainty which leaves John Kerry undermined as an identity crisis engulfs Washington D.C.

The United States is less of a democratic entity then it ever was and it has tightened under the Obama administration.  Obama’s extension of the Patriotic Act in 2011 and the capabilities of Homeland Security to stamp down control as seen in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings, the use of drones to kill civilians, contentious targets and even Americans if need be are an emphasis upon how the United States image and policies have shifted since 9/11. We cannot forget Edward Snowden’s revelations (also likely a confirmation of what many suspected) of the NSA’s worst excesses which include spying on its own people and its NATO allies in a global mass surveillance program.

All this amounts to a clear fact, the United States has the capability to impose itself if it so wishes on the global stage and for its rivals to risk affecting  their interests and that of their allies is one that they do at their own peril.

The eagle has undoubtedly receded in influence across the areas of the globe, and has been weakened both by the Bush administration war crimes, criminality and impunity to international law and in some cases by Obama himself (though he does not admit it which is a mistake). Enemies will exploit what they see as the lack of a resolved United States to meet their local and regional objectives. Obama is correct in most cases in showing restraint, favoring diplomatic resolutions and preferring dialogue to violence as realistically public opinion, world opinion by-enlarge, has shifted strongly against U.S foreign policy.

The Pax Americana is over joining the ‘New World Order’ dominated by America which died in the 1990s under Clinton. Obama may as much be a cause of the former’s demise as anyone and that is the debate of the now. The Pax Romana under Imperial Rome only lasted so long. The United States and the Obama administration are victims of their own history and mistakes. The United States has multiple enemies, perhaps more than anytime in its history and it cannot fight them all individually.

Many an empire has fallen victim to history treading too boldly and overreached arrogantly believing themselves too great to fall be it the Romans, Tsarist Russia, the British Empire, the Aztecs, the Mongols, the Third Reich or Napoleon, even the Soviet Union, nor did any fall in a day or year for that matter, they crumbled over time piece by piece until they succumbed. Obama’s speech at Westpoint was correct in many ways; the United States is far from a defeated or losing influence, but its ‘superiority complex’ is under threat and being questioned like it hasn’t been before this decade.

Is the receding of American dominance a bad thing or welcome for now? Only time will tell. The United States has spited its own face in recent years and have had, to some extent, their hands tied by other international players, events and circumstances big and small. What we see as weakness on Obama’s part for failing to maintain the standard hegemony should be taken as a dose of realism. America, though irreplaceable in the international theater, must have its limits and restraints in the 21st century.

Matthew Williams

The Ukrainian Right: Symptoms of a Sinister Past

The former Yugoslavia was destroyed by ethnic and nationalist splits and political differences

“Question everything that is said.”

Srebrencia, Bosnia 13th July 1995. Atleast 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims are dead in the name of a ‘Greater Serbia’ endorsed by Milošević under a Serbian nationalist agenda. Yugoslavia, a multi-cultural hub for centuries, a jewel of differences was torn apart in a matter of years by the catastrophic civil war between 1992 -1995. The Bosnian Serbs’ 1992 edicts, hoped to impose specific rules on the minority and the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats that took place under this political agenda saw some of the greatest atrocities seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Why do I speak of Ukraine and speak of the Bosnian Civil War? Ukraine is showing many symptoms of heading down Bosnia’s road perhaps an even greater problem for Europe given the high stakes vested in Crimea and Western Ukraine by both the Russian Federation and the United States. Ethno-religious fault-lines are threatening to flare be they Russian, Tartar, Ukrainian, or even Jewish. The Balkans likewise was split on various ethnic and religious grounds as its diversity became its downfall.

The most powerful and influential contingent emerging from the wreckage of Kiev and Yanukovych’s former government are the parties Svoboda and the Right Sector comprised of neo-Nazis, fascists and ultra-nationalists. These elements are extremely dangerous to the future of Ukraine and although I would hesitate to say that the protests in Ukraine were a predominantly ‘ultra-nationalist movement’, it is difficult to argue against the fact that these groups have infiltrated and exploited the revolution in Kiev and the democratic, pro-EU elements and the power vacuum left behind by the removal of the corrupt and brutal Yanukovych. Certainly these are not empty slurs and accusations if you consider Svoboda, Right Sector, and Ukraine’s history.

Svoboda is particularly controversial. Its name until 2004 was the “Social-National Party” and it maintains informal links to another group, the Patriots of Ukraine, regarded by some as proto-fascist. In 2004, Tyahnybok was kicked out of former President Viktor Yushchenko’s parliamentary faction for a speech calling for Svoboda’s platform calls for passports to specify the holder’s ethnicity, and for government positions to be distributed proportionally to ethnic groups, based on their representation in the population at large. Another interesting fact is that what are we are seeing is a prominent division between western and eastern Ukraine matches the elections rate for Svoboda (based largely in western Europe) who won 30-40% of vote in three western regions in 2012 – and about 1% in three eastern regions. Many of their insignias are comprised of Hitler’s notorious SS. The SS, under Himmler’s command, were the primary perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Consider Ukraine’s history before and during the Second World War. The Holodomer and the repression of Ukrainian nationalism by the Soviet Union. The former I refer to in particular was the orchestration of the Holodomer (death by starvation) by Joseph Stalin on the Ukrainian people which some have claimed was a genocide orchestrated by Stalin to eradicate Ukrainian nationalism under the guise of the collectivization of the peasantry and Soviet industrialization as rural households entered collective farms with their land, livestock, and other assets. Five to seven million people were believed to have starved to death in Ukraine, and the atrocities of Stalin marked the lowest depths to which Ukrainian-Russo relations could sink. This was hardly helped by the Ukrainians who chose to align with the murderous regime of the Nazi’s and fascist ideologies.

During World War II  independence following liberation by Nazi Germany saw the brutal ethnic cleansing of over 80,000 Poles, Tartars, Russians and Roma people by enclaves of Ukrainian society and the escalation of Anti-Semitic feelings within the country towards the Jews. Ukrainian soldiers and military police were directly involved in the massacre at Babi Yar (the sight of one of the largest massacres of Jews in World War II). In fact one of the most heart-wrenching pictures (pictured above) of the war in my opinion was taken in Ukraine, a mother protecting a child with her body as Einsatzgruppen soldiers aim their rifles, the final seconds of life encapsulated by both remarkable cruelty and love. This was taken in Ivanhorod, Ukraine, 1942.

Such groups of men were assisted in Ukraine by numerous collaborators and even the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Ukrainian) consisting predominantly of volunteers with Ukrainian ethnic backgrounds. It very much an unpleasant stain on Ukraine’s recent history, although it must be highlighted that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fought against the Nazi regime and suffered at their hands  the constraints on Ukrainian autonomy, mistreatment by the occupiers, and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians as slave laborers, soon led to a rapid change in the attitude amongst those willing to work with the fascists. Between 1941 and 1945, approximately 3,000,000 Ukrainian and other non-Jewish victims were killed as part of Nazi extermination policies, along with between 850,000 – 900,000 Jews who lived in the territory of modern Ukraine.  Such memories between the two nations are not likely to be forgiven entirely, nor forgotten.

I am not suggesting that all Ukrainians were involved in the massacre of the Jews, Poles and more in the country during World War II. The Nazis should always be held accountable for the murders. However history very often leaves an imprint, a mindset in many segments of society and clearly the Nazis left their mark on some radical elements of Ukrainian society. The leaders of Western Europe should remember that from a Russian perspective, fascism is not exactly their most favorable term when you remember Operation Barbarossa and the slaughter of over ten million soldiers and fifteen million civilians. Believe it. Such slaughter would leave a mark greater than that of 9/11 on the United States and that of World War I on the United Kingdom, the genocide in Rwanda, and that of the Holocaust to Israel. The legacy and memory of history are very important considerations in this crisis when looking at it from a Russian  perspective.

Like the former Yugoslavia before its collapse, Ukraine is swiftly being swamped by economic instability due to the crisis. The deterioration in economic and social stability of the latter prompted a unnerving rise in Serbian nationalism.  Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, targeted both Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians for atrocious crimes resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people (80 percent Bosniak) by 1995. Some branded it ethnic cleansing, others went further labeling the atrocities genocide.

Holdomor 1930s
Holdomor 1930s

I do not want to appear an ‘alarmist’ but as Lemarchand notes, ‘history does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes’ as can be seen by the ethnic divisions between Ukrainian nationalists and ethnic Russians predominantly, the Russians and Crimean Tartars, the Ukrainian fascists and Ukrainian Jews living within the country. It may not happen at all, it may happen in or over a number of years, but their elements are there to become an bloody conflict. Pro-Russian militia have been beating up Ukrainians and Crimeans opposed to their attitudes and threatening foreign onlookers, the protests seen in Kharkiv and Donetsk are certainly not peaceful. Russian ultra-nationalists also represent a threat to the stability of the region as any action by the Ukrainian government against them could see further reasons for Putin to occupy Eastern Ukraine and annex it. This is unaided by Right Sector members talking of a ‘clean’ Ukraine.

Consider the fact that BBC itself has covered the rise of ultra-nationalism in Ukraine in 2012. Similarly for all football fans who remember Euro 2012 that tournament preparation was marred by racist violence, anti-semitism, and xenophobia at the heart of Polish and Ukrainian football. Panorama itself covered the fundamental problems at the heart of Ukrainian football in-particular titled ‘Stadiums of Hate’. Eastern Europe including Russia in many aspects still holds many backward concepts, that are unacceptable in Western Europe and very often we see this at its very worst in football stadiums support run by Eastern European ultras. Football can represent society at its very best for unification. At its very worst it can represent hatred, discrimination and disregard for diversity which can often be starkly highlighted by these events.

These beliefs can often be rooted in that society and culture of a particular country. Ukrainian football, like its politics possesses ultra-nationalist and fascist elements.  They have to contained if the situation is to be prevented from escalation as much as the Russian military must remain as bloodless as possible. The withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the Crimea, ultimately a surrender, is likely to ease the tensions for a brief period.

The protests which escalated into riots had the media all over the world fearing Europe’s first civil war since the Balkan crisis until the Russian intervention, our generations second if you were born in the 1990s. Our politicians, NATO, and the United States are suggesting that Putin is on the ‘wrong side of history’ and certainly controversy surrounds the man, however is it possible to consider that we are going to be on the wrong side of history? What if extremists in the coalition government have the potential to trigger a civil war or regional conflict, rather than the Russians?

The Ukrainian Right has been bullish with the Russian intervention in the Crimea. In Bosnia and Kosovo it would not simply be a case of NATO playing catch up as seen in ‘Operation Deliberate Force’ when the damage was already done, the region reeling in the wake of mass-murder, torture and rape. It would be a case of both Russia and NATO propping up and allowing the extremists (of which they exist on both sides) to flourish in the power vacuum which will not only increase tensions within the Ukrainian socio-political spectrum, but also between the Kremlin and the White House.

The Ukrainian borderlands are being conditioned for war. Whether it would reach the ethnic and nationalist extremes witnessed in Bosnia is yet to be seen, but the continued problems of racism, religious division and more in Eastern Europe in the past and future are not particularly favorable omens.

 Matthew Williams : Ukraine crisis timeline.

Impasse Crimea: A matter of perspectives

It has been nearly twenty days since the Russian Federation responded to the ‘dangers’ to ethnic Russians in the Crimea and often we have been asking ourselves who is in the wrong, is it the Russians. Certainly under international law they have violated several rules under the United Nations Charter. However Western hypocrisy has so often rendered many areas of the world a war zone, and on many disastrous occasions left regional crises worse than before. We can point to Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan and the splintering of Yugoslavia as several examples whereby NATO and the United States have bungled flare points in international and regional affairs either by inaction or military inflexibility.Irrespective of the past the situation does remain very dangerous.

The Russian Federation can argue that thus far their intervention has ensured a relatively stable process whereby the Republic of Crimea has gained it independence and moved towards it preference; that being a satellite in the Russian sphere of influence. Still it will remain only a partially recognized subject as many across the world contend the autonomy and the fairness of the election.

Let’s look at the potential ‘what ifs’ scenarios had the Russian not intervened; who have on the face of it ensured a stable, if illegitimate referendum to break-away from a disgruntled Ukraine. The Russian military swiftly mobilised and encircled locations where the Ukrainian were located on the Crimean peninsula denying them the ability to engage with the Crimean people or intervene in the referendum. The question is what if the Ukrainian soldiers had been able to engage with the ethnic Russians who strongly protested for secession, especially the self-employed/volunteer militia? Perhaps a bloodier result would have emerged had Ukrainian soldiers and police loyal to Kiev clashed with ethnic Russians. Similarly would this have sparked more violence in the other places dominated or partly occupied by other Russian speaking people and prompt a more bullish response than we are currently seeing by the Russian Army?  These potentially violent splits and threats to Russian security could have prompted a far more serious crisis than the one we are already witnessing unfold.

Neo-Fascists in Ukriane.

Let us look at it from a Russian perspective and that of the Crimea. Physically and politically, Crimea belongs to Ukraine; mentally and emotionally, it identifies with Russia and makes many Ukrainian citizens feel like strangers on their own territory. One of my close friends also noted an interesting point.

‘The problem is that the newly installed government in Ukraine do have strong neo-nazi elements, which is worrying. The last time Russia had Nazis on their border 30 million or so Russians were killed. Crimea used to be part of Russia, and it is like the Falkland Islands, choosing to be part of a country by popular opinion. The people in the Crimea deserve a say in which country they want to be part of. Russia also needed to secure its only ‘warm water’ naval base, which is key to its sphere of influence.’

Is simply a case of deja vu? The outcome is very similar to the current outcome of votes at 97%. Undoubtedly the opposition within the Crimea to the vote boycotted the vote, nor can you blame them. Who would vote in the shadow of Russia’s military might or the appalling pressure of some militant ethnic Russians (not all) and no government or election would win by such staggering proportions as we witnessed on Sunday. There are dangers on both side of the political spectrum be they Russian ultranationalists and the empowerment of extreme Ukrainian nationalists and neo-fascists is no less a menace than Putin’s use of force in the Crimea for example Svoboda and the Right Sector. Those who dismantle a government or attempt to as seen in Syria have their own clear faults. Hence the need to secure Russian interests and as I have repeated on numerous occasions the Western hemisphere condemn in wake of their own violations of international politics “don’t break agreements (let’s exclude the one not to expand NATO eastward), don’t invade countries on controversial pretexts (except Iraq) and don’t support minority secession movements (except Kosovo).

A matter of perspective? U.S Soldiers in Iraq’s occupation.

There are legitimate fears amongst the Tartars who have a tarnished history with the Russian state, that old wounds will re-open similar to the chaos in Chechnya, the harrowing explosion at the station and markets in Volgograd 32 (+2 perpetrators) are testimony to the continued tension between the Kremlin and Islamist militants in Caucasian Emirate (a self-proclaimed virtual state entity in Russia). Note: Each region has its different objectives. In response to the increasing terrorism, Russia tightened its grip on Chechnya as well as expanded its anti-terrorist operations throughout the region. Russia installed a pro-Moscow Chechen regime. In 2003, a referendum was held on a constitution that reintegrated Chechnya within Russia, but provided limited autonomy. According to the Chechen government, the referendum passed with 95.5% of the votes. Nevertheless not everyone will welcome becoming part of this New Crimea.

Certainly there are exceptional dangers on both sides and Putin, though his actions have been likened to previous dictators is not a 19th century imperialist, nor can he in any sense of the word be a 20th century genocidal leader, that is unrealistic. His actions are a direct violation of international law, but so far direct Russian military action has not resulted in the death of any civilians, though a disturbing reports while I was writing this has revealed in Simferopol that a Ukrainian serviceman was shot and killed this afternoon. It is no longer a bloodless intervention. Our values in the West have changed as supposed to what we believe we represent and how international affairs should be conducted. NATO and in particular the United States are enduring a severe identity crisis in foreign policy. The rhetoric does not match the actions nor do the actions taken match the aggressiveness of the speeches and threats. Although the Kremlin should always be monitored with a mixture of respect and caution, antagonising its hard-line elements without sufficient muscle to back up your convictions and opinions is a dangerous game which has already branded both ‘rude and reckless’.


It would also be fair to point out that despite the underlying problems pervading Russian society and government we have set ourselves giddy heights by which our own societies should be judged, as the United States and many others are pervaded by some very serious problems of their own that some overlook whether it be oligarchic power, politicians that lack any sort of identification with their own people and certainly in some circumstances moral and political apathy. Of course it difficult to compare different societies and cultures but we misunderstand Russia so frequently. Nevertheless any further action by the Russians in Ukraine would certainly escalate the crisis. Based upon the West’s impotence you wouldn’t doubt Putin to be bold and press further to defend the interests of Russia.

Which ever route Europe decides go to on Putin’s actions we have little economic, moral, and military leverage by which to outwit the bear which currently deals with its cub’s tantrums Economic sanctions would spark a trade war and worsen relationships which have already been set back by the current situation, perhaps this is why NATO, the EU and the U.S.A choose (thus far!) not to impose further sanctions than banning travel visas. Certainly the whole scenario has already weakened Western credibility and Russia though it has exaggerated the threat to the ethnic Russians and has overseen an election surround by barbed wire has acted in a way that the got the objective completed without soiling its reputation to the extent the cumbersome, head strong United States has done so often in history be it Vietnam, Angola, and the Middle East.

The Russian Federation is hardly in the right, nor is it a perfect state, nor is its history.  What we are witnessing is a marked decline in the idea that reciprocal hegemony and liberalism in international relations are realistic. It is an unrealizable dream, a dangerous illusion, that politics like human nature is rooted in self-interest, and self-centered objectivity and most big powers players will do anything to hold on to their position on the international stage. Unilateral power-politics either of a military or arbitrary nature still and probably will always trump economic and soft power.  

It is not a Second Cold War, there are dangers on both sides of the spectrum, the question is at the moment as this who is provoking who? Who are the antagonists? The Russians? The Western Powers? Or the extremists on both sides? Does the threat lie in Western Ukraine or Crimea? Perspectives are of critical importance at this juncture as well as actions.  All it takes is one individual action or misinterpretation to change everything. For example Ukraine’s military says an officer has been killed in an attack on a base in Crimea. Ukraine has now authorized its troops to fire in self-defense. Alternately everything I have written could completely flip and the Russian Army could make a hash of an already dangerous situation as provocations increase between all sides. No side will win in these circumstances.

Matthew Williams