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


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

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

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

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

Image via the Guardian
Image via the Guardian

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

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

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

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

Torture Iraq
Image via Al-Jazeera

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS executions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via Huffington Post
Image via Huffington Post

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

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

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

Image via International Business Times
Image via International Business Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via
Image via

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

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

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

Matthew Williams

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

The Rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

“From the beginning men used God to justify the unjustifiable.”

Salman Rushdie

John Jihadi

The Middle Eastern conflicts continue to lurch from one calamity to the next and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stick to the depressing script by committing stark and bloody brutality that seem barely fathomable to the average Westerner.  ISIS’s developing caliphate is the spawn of the Syrian Civil War and George Bush’s and Tony Blair’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. Yet who are these men, where did they come from, how are they organised and what do they want as they relentlessly wage war on the greater Middle East? 

It all started with the Iraq War (19 March 2003 – 15 December 2011). The largely fabricated pretexts for the invasion were that Saddam Hussein allegedly possessed weapons of mass-destruction and harbored affiliates of Al-Qaeda who had recently carried out the world’s most devastating terrorist attack on American soil at the World Trade Centre, September 11th 2001.

Both assumptions concocted by the hawkish Bush administration were lies and costly lies which cost the United States over $4 trillion and left 4,487 U.S soldiers dead, 32,226 wounded and the United Kingdom death toll stood at 179. More importantly the Iraqi dead varied between 150,000 to perhaps 500,000 while thousands were detained and/or tortured. U.S credibility and ideals were blood spattered and in the dust as the result of the illegal war organised by the likes of Dick Cheney, Paul Bremer, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

Iraq’s infrastructure was de-stabilized  by the coalition forces destruction. Alongside this a shambles of a ‘democracy’ was put in place crudely by the Bush administration without competent consideration to the colonial history and the multicultural melting pot that is Iraq.

According to Charles Tripp, 350,000 strong Iraqi Armed Forces were dissolved in the wake of Iraq’s occupation many of whom angry at being conquered and defeated would come to assist the armed resistance against America. Just over a decade later the end product presents a fairly damning verdict on those responsible for leading us to war all those years ago. The end result is that ISIS threaten to establish an Islamic caliphate, unchecked jihadists roam with relative impunity and the Iraqi population continues to suffer.

Abu Masab al-Zarqawi: founder of ISI (now ISIS)

Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad was originally the organisation from which ISIS evolved. Created in Europe between 1999-2000 by Abu Masab al-Zarqawi the aim of al-Tawhid wal-Jihad  was primarily to overthrow the Jordanian monarchy and (like ISIS intends to now) create an Islamic caliphate. Al-Zarqawi was an experienced in insurgency and terrorist activities fighting with mujaheddin in the insurgency against the Soviet Union during their invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.  He also ran Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, where he taught recruits to use chemical and biological weapons. From 2001 onward he 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.

It was during the ground invasion of Iraq in 2003 that  Al-Zarqawi re-named  the organisation Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) (which would later become  the Islamic State of Iraq)and within a year the faction had pledged itself to Al-Qaeda.

“No sooner had the calls been cut off than Allah chose to restore them, and our most generous brothers in al-Qaeda came to understand the strategy of the Tawhid wal-Jihad organization in Iraq, the land of the two rivers and of the Caliphs, and their hearts warmed to its methods and overall mission. Let it be known that al-Tawhid wal-Jihad pledges both its leaders and its soldiers to the mujahid commander, Sheikh ‘Osama bin Laden’ (in word and in deed) and to jihad for the sake of Allah…”

This was where its power began to be nurtured by conflict and bolstered by funding by Al-Qaeda, raids, and individual and foreign support from Syria and Iran. The United States invaded looking for Saddam’s ‘terrorists’ and ironically they had  in-part created their very own who were now looking to resist the occupation.

Al-Zarqawi had entered Iraq after NATO’s invasion of Afghanistan before the invasion however intelligence showed that Al-Zarqawi had no connections to the former dictator. ISI was one amongst many nationalists, Shi’a and Sunni armed resistance/terrorist movements that sprung up over large areas of Iraq such as ‘The Strugglers of Iraq’, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (ASI), ‘The Islamic Army of Iraq’, ‘The Army of Muhammad’ and more.

Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003 20130227_iraq_10yrs1_800.jpg
Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003

Al-Zarqawi’s organisation  effectively became an extension of the Al-Qaeda network From the very beginning came to be associated with  extreme violence. Like most Islamist terrorist factions AQI did not distinguish between Western civilians and soldiers. Collaborators were hunted down with ruthless efficiency nor were the Shi’a exempt from targeted terror attacks as the faction declared war on Shi’a Muslims.

AQI/ISI was like the a-typical Islamist terror cell and adopted effective guerrilla tactics to disrupt the coalition forces which made up for their (then) deficiencies in direct combat with American soldiers. Various strategies were adopted such as targeting institutions and personnel associated with the newly installed government, the use of spectacular violence such as car bombs, kidnap, executions and the targeting of minorities (for instance Shia Muslims, Christians. Coalition forces, the new Iraqi Armed Forces and police were obvious targets.

The barbarism we are watching unfold in Iraq, the terror tactics used on Iraqi Armed Forces in June 2014, Iraqi Christians and the Yazidis such as the beheading and execution of prisoners (most famously American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff) were carried out by AQI during the insurgency period 2003-2011. The most notorious during this period were the separate executions of American hostages Nicholas Berg (May 2004) and Eugene Armstrong (September 2004). Their executions was carried out by Al-Zarqawi personally.

8 December 2009 Baghdad bombings conducted by ISIS

AQI managed to master the guerrilla tactics considerably. The physical trauma and psychological stress of  urban warfare took its toll on the American military in the likes of Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul and Kirkuk. We cannot underestimate how important this period was in molding ISIS into increasingly independent entity.This autonomy would have been accelerated by the death of Al-Zarqawi who 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.

In 2008 Bush made the decision under the Status of Forces agreement with the Iraqi government that US combat troops would depart in 2011. Those who argue that it was Barack Obama’s decision to withdraw from Iraq are incorrect, he was merely carrying out the policy of his predecessor and also upholding his promise to the American people that troops would return home. However the role of America in creating ISIS will return later in the narrative.

The announcement of the American retreat saw a sharp rise in suicide attacks and AQI in-particular carried out  devastating coordinated attacks on October 25th, 2009 and December 8th, 2009 (pictured above) which, combined, killed 282 civilians. The future of Iraq hardly looked promising in the face of such well-planned atrocity and cracks were already appearing in the new state which with all it newly trained armed forces and reformed government looked fragile at the core.

The U.S abandoned Iraq with a system of governance based on ethnicity and sectarianism with the Shi’a majority with Nouri al-Maliki as Prime Minister rule being characterized by corruption and inaccessibility for the minorities to the political scene which in turn exacerbated violence between Sunni and Shi’a factions. This was hardly aided by the fact that al-Maliki was to be regarded by many as an illegitimate puppet put in place by invading U.S forces.

Obama announcing the death of Bin Laden×280.jpg

This is not to say though that ISIS  didn’t have its fair share of instability as between 2010 and 2011 then ally Al-Qaeda’s leadership, including its own, 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.

This double blow was then followed by the black op which resulted in the killing of Osama Bin Laden on May 2nd, 2011 in Pakistan. Al-Qaeda was weakening. The cries of ‘U.S.A! U.S.A! U.S.A!’ chorused outside the White House and across America into the spring night.

As AQI reeled with its decimated ally the Arab Spring began to gather momentum. In late 2010 revolutionary demonstrations and protests swept Northern Africa and the Middle East rendering it an inviting hot-bed for radicalism as civil wars broke out in Libya andIraq’s neighbor Syria. Syria  was to provide an avenue by-which ISI would not only re-group but consolidate its power and become a bigger challenge to local and Western politicians.

The Arab Spring and the alarming growth in terrorist organisations across the Middle East and Africa were to serve Jason Burke’s analysis of Islamic extremism perfectly: “Language of high-tech weaponry, militarism and eradication….the latter may be useful to treat the symptom but does not, and will never, treat the disease.” AQI was about to place itself on the map as ISIS and become more powerful than its affiliate Al-Qaeda. There were several internal and external factors by which ISIS would rise to prominence.


In the wake of the deaths of al-Masri and al-Baghdadi, a Islamist radical stepped out the shadows to assume control of AQI. The man was known as Dr. Abu Dua, Ibrahim bin Awad Al-Samarra’i who would later become known as ISIS’s ruthless and charismatic leader Abu Bakir Al-Baghdadi.  It has widely been accepted by Western political leaders, the international media and journalists alike that al-Baghdadi has played a massive role in engineering the rise of ISIS into an independent terrorist organisation.

Born in 1971, Al-Samarra’i original home was situated amongst the Diyala and Samarra tribes located in central Iraq 130km north of Baghdad. ‘He is descendant from the tribes of Al-Sada Al-Asharaf Al-Badriyin’ and while little of his childhood and upbringing is known he was brought up as a devout Sunni Muslim. According to a widely cited biography released by jihadists, “he is a man from a religious family. His brothers and uncles include preachers and professors of Arabic language, rhetoric and logic.”  He married Saja al-Duleimi who has only been seen in raw footage of an exchange between Islamic militants Al-Nusra and that of ISIS before the two became enemies in February 2014.

Like the leaders of Al-Qaeda Zawahiri and Bin Laden who were both wealthy and educated individuals alongside their conservatism (which when combined with a sense of injustice can be potent in the hands of intelligent dissidents) Al-Samarra’i comes from an highly educated background which seems odd given the psychotic and violent nature of his organisation. He undertook Islamic studies and history at the university of Baghdad where alongside his dedication to his studies he became a teacher, an intellectual, and a preacher at mosques across Baghdad. He obtained a doctorate at Islamic University in Baghdad and became known to many as Dr. Ibrahim.

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, December 20th 1983. Rumsfeld would later lead the U.S campaign in 2003 to topple Saddam. This was after the summer of 1983 when Iran had been reporting Iraqi use of using chemical weapons for some time.

All these factors paint Al-Samarra’i as a deeply conservative individual who grew up during the years of savage dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, the Iraq-Iran War (1980 –1988), the Gulf War (1990-1991) and American meddling in Iraq as far back at the 1960s which only increased during his lifetime. The Gulf War destroyed critical infrastructure such as hospitals, roads, bridges and water treatment plants and Saddam Hussein’s regime was placed under sanctions by the United States which led to starvation of thousands of Iraqi civilians under Clinton’s authorization.

His deep seated hatred of Americans may have begun during this period of instability in Iraq as America propped up Saddam’s Baathist dictatorship despite their knowledge of his use of chemical weapons against the Iranians and Kurds. However what mattered to the United States was that he was a deterrent to communist influence, a check on Iranian power and secured Western oil interests, Al-Samarra’i’s hatred of the United States and Western influences would have been cemented by the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq when the Shi’a government and the Kurds under al-Maliki was to alienate the Sunnis from the halls of power.

Al-Samarra’i became thoroughly radicalized by the insurgency period and war against U.S occupation forces. In 2005, he was captured by American forces and spent the next four years a prisoner in the Bucca Camp in southern Iraq until his release in 2009 although there is some debate as to whether he was held for less than a year in 2004.

Incarceration, likely interrogation and the destruction of many parts of Iraq by coalition combat troops pushed al-Samarra’i further into the neo-Wahabbist terrorist cells in Iraq where he began to gain influence. He would likely in his 30s have been exposed to the more radical subversion of  Wahhabist extremist ideologies  espoused by Bin Laden, al-Zarqawi, and Zawahiri.  During this time he assumed the name Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


According to the BBC ‘al-Baghdadi and his group joined the Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in 2006, in which he served as a member of the MSC’s sharia committee.‘ Following the renaming of the MSC as the ISI in 2006, al-Baghdadi became the supervisor of the ISI’s sharia committee and a key member of the group’s senior consultative council.

The turning point for al-Baghdadi came in April 2010 when the United States struck at the leadership of AQI/ISI and at its lowest ebb since its creation al-Baghdadi having gained significant influence in the ranks of Al-Qaeda assumed command of ISI from the deceased al-Masri and Abu Abdullah al-Baghdadi.

Over four remarkable years several important changes occurred within the organisation which was influenced by significant geo-political events and al-Baghdadi’s ability to react to these events All this occurred along his harrowing and quite unique strategic vision we are witnessing unfold.

The Syrian Civil War’s death toll now stands at 200,000 people

The Syrian Civil War began in March 2011 and what had originally been a fight between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Armed Forces of Bashar Al-Assad. The civil war (still ongoing)  quickly degenerated into a complex and bloody conflict with both sides, particularly that of Assad originally committing war crimes (i.e. Houla massacre May 25, 2012) and being accused of torture. The Ghouta chemical attacks (the perpetrator of which is uncertain and most likely to have been the splintered rebel factions) have come to encapsulate the war.

Meanwhile al-Baghdadi had stabilized AQI and was responsible for several bombing and assassinations in Iraq during 2011 as United States military withdrew and AQI aimed at immediately undoing the ‘successes’ of the occupation.

The most spectacular displays of violence included the August 28, 2011 attack on the Umm al-Qura mosque in Baghdad, which killed prominent Sunni lawmaker Khalid al-Fahdawi, an attack in Hilla, Iraq, that killed 24 policemen and wounded 72 others, and the August 15, 2011, a wave of AQI suicide attacks comprising  shootings, bombings, car bombs, IEDs, suicide bombings began in Mosul, Iraq, which has resulted in over 60 deaths. The resulting attacks attracted a bounty of $10 million to AQI’s powerful head figure. 

It seemed that the scalp of Bin Laden was a small victory in a disastrous decade for U.S foreign policy. Not content with sitting on his opening flourish of  success in 2011, al-Bagdadi expanded his war against almost everything and everyone.

During the U.S occupation AQI had struggled in close quarter fighting with combat troops. Syria provided the jihadists a battleground in which they could hone their fighting skills and make a name for themselves slaughtering rebels and Syrian government troops alike as well as attracting foreign fighters. This would not be so difficult as under al-Zarqawi the group was originally comprised of locals and foreign jihadists.

The Syrian war has seen the use of chemical weapons.!/image/59111700.JPG_gen/derivatives/landscape_640/59111700.JPG

The Syrian war as al-Baghdadi envisaged would make ISIS a more coherent, well-armed, experienced, uniform organisation, a powerful military force that was able to conduct two major operations under al-Baghdadi. Firstly Iraq was to be rendered inherently unstable and ISI would exploit the discontent of the Sunni minority in the face of Shi’a dominance by continuing its guerrilla war. Secondly they would become an effective military force. Syria had become a massive weapons depot  with the United States and Russia supplying each side with the necessary weapons to win the conflict.

The process by which ISIS entered into the war is important. Syria is where ISIS  began its Northern Iraq Offensive in June 2014. Many Syrians were part of the AQI/ISI during the occupation period as it was composed of many foreign fighters. Many of these Syrians of ISI crossed the border under the command of Abu Mohammed al-Joulani to establish a foothold in the war-torn country and aid the Free Syrian Army in fighting Assad’s forces at Aleppo in late 2011.

Despite differences in ideology and the secular moderates worry for the theocratic/ fundamentalist nature of Al-Nusra, they fought cohesively together. In-fact Al-Nusra was identified by Syrians as more ‘moderate’ than hard-line ISIS despite being an extension of Al-Qaeda.

Al-Nusra sought to help the rebels topple dictator Assad.

On 24 January 2012, al-Joulani announced the official formation of the Al-Nusra Front after the group staged several bombings in Aleppo, al-Midan, and Damascus. This would provide the perfect bridge through which AQI/ISI members from Iraq and other countries could be assimilated quickly into  the Syrian conflict.  According to Soufan group over 12,000 Islamist fighters flocked to Syria to fight against secular Assad’s dictatorship all with a mixture of different individual and factional goals whether it be martyrdom, caliphates, power and blood lust.

During 2012 the Al-Nusra Front gained power through its incursions into Syrian territory. With borders seen on a map virtually non-existent in reality, the Islamic State of Iraq deployed itself in northern Syria in April 2013 and formerly became ISIL or as we know it the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

ISIS’s objectives were ambitious and terrifying as rebels, Syrian soldiers on both sides, and civilians caught in the cross fire were to discover. Al-Baghdadi was determined to create a cleansed Islamic state and impose brutal sharia law with immediate effect on any seized towns and territories, in effect a caliphate which al-Baghdadi would  ‘rule’ over all ‘world Muslims’.  This caliphate would stretch from Iraq to as far as Israel and Lebanon and be based on neo-Wahabbist/neo-Salfist Islam which regards Shi’a, Sufi, Jews, and Christians as heretics and women as second-class citizens. It was a 18th century fascistic, twisted, and violent off-shoot of Islamic worship.

Idealistic in practice and perhaps unrealistic it was the creation of a brilliant yet psychotic mind molded by first and foremost extremism but also extensive education in Islamic studies, Middle Eastern history and many, many sharia committee meeting in Iraq. Yet the grounds on which it can be formed would constitute ethnic cleansing and genocide as the plight of the Iraqi Christians, Kurds, Shi’a Muslims and the Yazidis illustrates.

This is where the divisions began to appear between Al-Nusra, Al-Qaeda and the newly proclaimed ISIS. As Sarah Birke summarises in her article on ISIS:

” ISIS and Nusra share many aims, and both are well funded and trained, there are significant differences between the two groups. Jabhat al-Nusra stresses the fight against Assad, while ISIS tends to be more focused on establishing its own rule on conquered territory. Nusra has pursued a strategy of slowly building support for an Islamic state, while ISIS is far more ruthless, carrying out sectarian attacks and imposing sharia law immediately.”

ISIS were effectively regarded as ‘invaders’ whilst Al-Nusra though the creation of Syrians who had previously been of ISIS were ‘Syrian’.Thus they were deemed a domestic issue rather than a foreign faction despite its capacity for inflicting human suffering. Al-Baghdadi arrived in Syria seeking to absorb the Al-Nusra Front into ISIS the former of which had been officially blessed by Al-Qaeda as a terrorist organisation separated from the control of Al-Baghdadi.

The dispute over how to follow up success, objectives, and the ultra-violent way in which ISIS imposed itself on Syria throughout 2013 led to Al-Qaeda dissociating itself from ISIS in February 2014. Zawahiri stated:

“ISIS is not a branch of the al-Qaeda group . . . does not have an organizational relationship with it and [al-Qaeda] is not the group responsible for their actions,”

This severing of ties was a combination of Zawahiri’s disdain for the growing power of al-Baghdadi and the latter’s ambition to become a covert and independent organisation. This disdain was coupled with ISIS’s  hard-line outlook on how to impose an Islamic state. Al-Qaeda was also now weaker than ISIS and al-Baghdadi calculations were likely to have been formed after Al-Qaeda’s leadership was targeted by the Obama administration.

The statement of Al-Qaeda has had little effect on the logistical capabilities of ISIS. Al-Nusra’s Mohammed al-Joulani followed suit after the killing of one of its members Abu Khaled al-Souri and went further declaring war on ISIS. An intra-jihadist civil war had erupted.

The arrival of ISIS effectively created what was originally a war between various rebel factions glued crudely together against Assad into a two front war where the Free Syrian Army and Al-Nusra would be caught between Assad’s forces and those of ISIS.

Iraqi Special Forces face an uphill challenge to keep Iraq together.

ISIS gained the necessary experience required to take on the Iraqi Armed Forces trained by the U.S military. They successfully combined their guerrilla tactics honed in the insurgency in the Iraq war with that of  ‘surprise attack, inflict maximum casualties and spread fear before withdrawing without suffering heavy losses…’ while using ‘militarily untrained foreign volunteers as suicide bombers either moving on foot wearing suicide vests, or driving vehicles packed with explosives.’ The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated with conviction ISIS’s strength:

“ISIS is the strongest group in Northern Syria – 100% and anyone who tells you anything else is lying.”

I do not need to go into detail on the trail of horror and grotesque brutality they left in their wake (mass executions, beheading, rape, mass murder, crucifixion and more) but what is happening in Iraq was inflicted on Syrian men, women and children and soldiers.

The campaign in northern Syria was relatively successful with key battles and successes won in Aleppo, the city of Raqqa and very recently ISIS were able to  launch several incursions into Lebanese territory, 41% of the population of whom are Christians while 27% of the Muslims are Shia. Turkey’s most devastating terrorist attack was carried out by ISIS in May 2013, a month after they entered Syria whilst Fallujah was seized in Iraq by the faction. Now ISIS and Kurdish soldiers are fighting tooth and nail for the border town of Kobane in Northern Syria.

As Al-Qaeda, ISIS and various Islamist factions starting turning against each other the Obama administration in their battle to topple Assad began  supplying weapons to hard-line jihadist and Islamic extremists in Syria. The inability of the Russian Federation  and the United States to come to a conclusion as to how to solve the conflict fueled the problems in Syria. Supply was done  via their allies such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia (various Gulf monarchies who have supported hard-line extremists for some time) and according to the Washington Post’s Greg Miller, the C.I.A.  According to Juan Cole of Truthdig neither Saudi Arabia or Qatar have thus far have openly criticized ISIS for their crimes.

On October 20, 2010, U.S. State Department notified Congress of its intention to make the biggest arms sale in American history – an estimated $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Specific individuals are a key source of funding according to leaked U.S diplomatic cables in 2009  according to Hilary Clinton:

“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority…Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” 

This comment by Alex Spillius may state that it sponsors Al-Qaeda, yet we must remember that ISIS used to be ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’ so at some stage they will have received logistical support from the Saudi, Syrian and Qatari governments.
Members of the Al-Nusra Front

Both ISIS and Al-Nusra ideologies’ are combination of neo-Wahhabist, Salafist and Sunni, so whilst the Iraq invasion may have destroyed the fundamental military, police and security structures  the Obama administration has hardly curbed the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Technically many of us are inadvertently funding terrorism not just assisting refugees in the Syrian war. This is a product of of deliberate and poor long term and short-term U.S/Western strategy in regards to the Middle East, seen most obviously in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front  flourished and grew more powerful than than their affiliates Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda thanks to financial and logistical support from the West’s Middle Eastern allies, and the weaponery seized from Assad’s Syrian Army. The violence of both ISIS and Al-Nusra as seen by pictures and Youtube videos (warning contains very graphic content) posted by both organisations are violent.

The Arab Spring had ushered in an online propaganda war between power and people. Twitter in-particular has been utilized to tremendous effect to not only rapidly post tweets in quick 140 word bursts but to trend to gain international attention when specific breaking news or events are occurring.

It is also a useful place to privately or publicly interact with followers and other users and the younger generation have often found ways to use the system even if it blocked by intelligence and government networks as seen by the Turkish riots of this year.

This was to become useful to ISIS in promoting their brand, notoriety, power, objectives, ideology, terror tactics (pictures of mass executions, crucifixions and beheading) and successes through Youtube and Twitter accounts or admirers of the organisation reach and influence. Their current hashtag campaigns are achieving considerable international attention as are the lone wolves who seek to support and promote their cause. Even then ISIS don’t have to do it themselves. We are doing it by #ISIS to spread the terrible stories and as they gain traction they grow richer and more powerful as they attract investment.

They even have (bizarrely) merchandise now selling t-shirts and making cakes and promoting their cause via smartphone! For all its utter barbarity there is a very modern and sophisticated way in which ISIS conducts itself. The deployment  of tactics a-typical of protesters in the early stages of the Arab Spring, with the objective to spread terror, despair, and their barbaric ideology have been particularly effective. Their annual report is as impressive as it is chilling.

Interestingly ISIS’s social media propaganda campaign trends the most in Saudi Arabia’s region in the Middle East under the hash tag #itwillremain and #ISIS at 35.1% whilst Qatar and Iraq stands at 7.5%, the U.S.A at 9.1%. This is an attempt to recruit more foreign fighters and wealthy donors of which there are plenty in Saudi Arabia and 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, the latter of which was no secret as far back as 2008 according to Wikileaks.

“U.S. officials have described Qatar’s counter-terrorism cooperation since 9/11 as significant; however, some observers have raised questions about possible support for Al Qaeda by some Qatari citizens, including members of Qatar’s large ruling family.”

Naturally the U.S.A may desire to support the moderates fighting Assad yet an ocean of oil lies beneath the Middle East and Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter and producer. America’s hunger to consume cheap oil may influence political and moral decisions. Destabilizing Iraq’s oil supplies through civil war and disintegration will increase demand for Saudi Arabian oil exports.This is a recurring theme in past Middle Eastern history; blood oil and petro-politics.

By June 2014 Al-Baghdadi and ISIS now stood ready to take the fight to the Iraqi government installed by the U.S government now deeply unpopular with the Sunni minority.  As al-Baghdadi predicted the Iraqi Sunnis would be more than willing to turn to the jihadists and foreign fighters when their political future was non-existent under Nouri al-Maliki. An ample amount of U.S hardware lay in sight to seize and rub further salt in the wounds of America’s new Vietnam.

Independent, the wealthiest terror cell in the world, battle-hardened, uniformed, at-least 15,000 strong and most importantly unified and determined. ISIS’s rise to the full public awareness was nearly complete and as I have analysed with a considerable amount of depth it was through a variety of factors that they came into being.

ISIS’s victory, America’s failure.

While Obama seeks to contain the Islamic state by airstrikes (a tactic that did not prevent Khmer Rouge from seizing power in Cambodia in 1975) it cannot avoid the several depressing conclusions: this is the legacy of the Iraq War, this is the legacy of unchecked colonialism, this is the product of America’s Middle Eastern politics, and without doubt this is the bloodiest chapter in the Middle East’s bleak mid-winter. For all the strategic genius and charisma of al-Baghdadi his extremist faction have opened up one of the darker chapters in the history of the Middle East. The Arab Spring if not dying now lies murdered in its cradle. The Middle East’s  future for now is ISIS; jet black, a battle ground for authoritarian regimes and Islamic militants.

Matthew Williams

The Arabian End Game

“War does not determine who is right – only who that is left”

Bertrand Russell

ISIS executionThe Arab Spring, now dubbed by many the Arabian winter, has consumed the Middle East and Northern Africa like a wildfire, uncontrollable and almost beyond taming from the outside. What looked like a series of short-term crises have molded into a long-term regional conflict.  Revolution and reform has festered into civil war, counter-revolution, coups, civil strife, insurgency, authoritarianism, terrorism and various humanitarian crises. Global refugee figures now stand at 51.2 million the highest since World War II and it only looks set to increase as annually violence intensifies and many borders that we see on maps are now the merest of illusions. As Anton Guterres (UN High Commission for Refugees) remarks the ‘quantum numbers’ parallel the ‘quantum’ leap in the stakes of this regional crisis. 

The Iraq crisis has served to exacerbate the severity of the regional collapse with the focus shifting from the Ukrainian borderlands back to the Middle East. Finger pointing has commenced in America as it struggles to come to terms with its new Vietnam, Obama in a potentially unattainable situation in regards to Iraq.

Naturally the focus has been on the Bush administration, the West’s legacy in Iraq and the denial and bitterness of key politicians who orchestrated and oversaw the Iraq invasion and occupation (2003-2011). The focus should undoubtedly remain on them and inquiries must be conducted in the UK and United States to explain all the controversy surrounding coalitions action regarding war crimes and the illegitimacy of the grounds for invasion.

Area of the world affected by civil strife, war, insurgency, violence, revolution, terrorism and chaos. Global crisis?
Areas of the world affected by serious civil strife, war, insurgency, violence, revolution, state of alert, terrorism and chaos. Global crisis?

However at the same time solutions for the now and the long-term have to be considered to resolving the crisis, lest men radicalized by conflict return or emerge on our shores and other regions of the world to promote extremism and violence. This could quite easily spill over into unstable Greece and Turkey, the former of whom is starting to support the more fascist elements within the political spectrum such as Golden Dawn. Turkey is likewise suffering from civil unrest, economic instability and the repression of many civil liberties (we saw the shut down of Twitter to quell political dissent online a tactic regularly used now by activists, insurgents and jihadists).

Containing the threat is as important as solving it and whilst the international community would like to see the bloodshed cease, most notably in Syria, the crisis in Middle East is starting to look beyond the direct control of the super-powers (such as the Russian Federation and the United States). This is largely due to the splintering of rebel factions into a variety of insurgents, hard-line jihadists with varying goals and objectives, freedom fighters, and those fighting for a secular government all of whom tend to overlap with one another.

Local powers hold the key to this crisis as the Western powers have either bungled their support for the pro-Western/democratic entities or have tainted their reputations with regard to conduct and policies in regards to Middle Eastern affairs. Nevertheless history and the continued Global War on Terror dictates that the West will remain key to the Middle East’s future.

The success or failure of the Iran nuclear deal could be an important factor in containing the Middle Eastern conflicts not to mention our relationship with Putin and the Kremlin over the Ukrainian civil war and the Syrian civil war. How the Iraqi government, its armed forces and political parties deal with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS) in the coming weeks is also pivotal.

Using drones and air-strikes as Obama does in Pakistan as stated in a previous article is unlikely to deter the opposition who are well armed and from videos that have been seen on the ground it is an  urban war in the towns and cities of Iraq. Airstrikes would only incur heavy casualties both civilian and military and leave many embittered against the Obama administration, a useful propaganda tool for jihadist and insurgency organisations.

More crucially those who are pro-Western in Iraq would or could be a target of retribution and being pro-Western can be manipulated into anything from western affiliation to political and religious beliefs or ethnicity. This is in-part already happening but bombings would only accelerate the crimes against humanity not ease them.

The United States must also 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. According to Juan Cole of Truthdig neither thus far have openly criticized ISIS for their crimes. On October 20, 2010, U.S. State Department notified Congress of its intention to make the biggest arms sale in American history – an estimated $60.5 billion purchase by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Specific individuals are a key source of funding according to leaked U.S diplomatic cables in 2009  according to Hilary Clinton:

“It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority…Donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide” 

Both ISIS and Al-Nusra ideologies’ are predominantly Sunni, so whilst the Iraq invasion may have destroyed the fundamental military, police and security structures (an incompetent strategy employed by Rumsfeld then Secretary of Defence) the Obama administration has hardly curbed the rise of violent Islamism in Syria and Iraq. So technically many of us are inadvertently funding terrorism not just assisting refugees in the crises. This is a product of of deliberate and poor long term and short-term U.S/Western strategy in regards to the Middle East, seen most obviously in Iraq and Syria.

ISIS and the Al-Nusra Front have flourished and grown more powerful than than their affiliates Ayman al-Zawahiri and Al-Qaeda thanks to financial and logistical support from the West’s Middle Eastern allies and seized depots of Assad’s Syrian Army. The violence of both ISIS and Al-Nusra as seen by pictures and Youtube videos (warning contains very graphic content) posted by both organisations are horrific and easily found. Our allies often funded by government’s in Western Europe and America fund the very men we claim to fight, such as those who commited atrocities on 9/11, 7/7, Woolwich, in Madrid and Mumbai since 2001.

Interestingly ISIS’s social media propaganda campaign trends the most in Saudi Arabia’s region in the Middle East under the hash tag #itwillremain and #ISIS at 35.1% whilst Qatar and Iraq stands at 7.5%, the U.S.A at 9.1%. This is an attempt to recruit more foreign fighters and wealthy donors of which there are plenty in Saudi Arabia and 2022 World Cup hosts Qatar, the latter of which was no secret as far back as 2008 according to Wikileaks.

“U.S. officials have described Qatar’s counter-terrorism cooperation since 9/11 as significant; however, some observers have raised questions about possible support for Al Qaeda by some Qatari citizens, including members of Qatar’s large ruling family.”

Naturally the U.S.A may desire to support the moderates fighting Assad yet an ocean of oil lies beneath the Middle East and Saudi Arabia is the world’s top oil exporter and producer. Americans hunger to consume cheap oil and economics may influence political and moral decisions. Destabalizing Iraq’s oil supplies through civil war and disintegration will increase demand for Saudi Arabian oil exports.This is a recurring theme in past Middle Eastern history; blood oil and petro-politics.

Whether or not these pictures are real are disputed, ISIS’s and Al-Nusra’s atrocities are not on Youtube.

Supporting extremists is unlikely to fill the void of Assad’s government with a pro-Western affiliate nor will the ending of Assad’s regime guarantee a peaceful power transfer. In-fact a second civil war would likely occur if Assad was removed from power between the extremists, moderates, and insurgents and encourage the continuation of sectarian violence; essentially a repeat of Iraq. This is something we are seeing unfold in Libya since Gaddafi’s execution October 20th 2011 and NATO’s airstrikes against pro-Gaddafi forces.

Military rule in Egypt
Military rule in Egypt

The dilemma between authoritarianism and anarchy in the Middle East is particularly difficult and contentious issue that we must address. In Egypt Abdul Fattah al-Sisi has rapidly and brutally cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood, however there a belief amongst many that a civil war would have began had the military not taken control in wake of the 2nd coup and ousting of democratically elected but incompetent and ineffective Mohammed Morsi.

Yet the death penalty for dissidents, and legitimate protesters as well as the detainment of thousands more is no peace, just martial law, a reversal of the gains made since Mubarak was removed by the protesters in a largely bloodless coup in 2011. The west is in a moral quandary not supporting elected Morsi while silently condoning the army coup.The Egyptian military is again in part funded by the United States and it is the same old story much like that of Saddam Hussein who was installed by the C.I.A  none other than President John F. Kennedy, conducted its own regime change in Baghdad, carried out in collaboration with Saddam.

Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein, December 20th 1983. Rumsfeld would later lead the U.S campaign in 2003 to topple Saddam. This was after the summer of 1983 when Iran had been reporting Iraqi use of using chemical weapons for some time.

As long as the government is pro-Western rather than democratic, these are the people we tend to back whether it be Saddam who used chemical weapons against the Iranians and Kurds but he is a deterrent to communist influence and secures Western oil interests, Saudi Arabians funding terrorists but being the world top exporters of oil or the Israeli pro-Western buffer state who have ethnically cleansed the Palestinians and bomb the Gaza Strip since 1948 and are increasingly right-wing and fascist under Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu.


This is not about democracy and the Arab Spring’s eventual decline into a series of regional  proxy wars highlights this. Iran and the Russian Federation aren’t innocent either. They back their ally Assad who uses napalm, barrel bombs, and other ruthless tactics including torture to fight both moderate and radical secular/religious factions. Both sides have been accused of using official and home-made nerve gas and sarin chemical weapons against each other. With extremists on both sides not just Assad’s that would not and should not surprise us.  It is either authoritarian rule or the proxy-conflicts and brutal caliphates/Islamic states of hard-line militants.

Will we see more troops on the ground under a future president of the United States and NATO? After all this is a long-term crisis that will most likely past Obama’s term in office which has spread to parts of Africa (asides North Africa) most notoriously Mali, Kenya and Nigeria while Somalia has been plagued by violent Islamism in the form of Al-Shabaab since the 1990s.

The frustration and isolation of Russian Muslims in the politics of the Kremlin as well as those in satellite states such as Chechnya and Dagestan only increase the problems. Conflict has torn apart the provinces creating power vacuums filled by warlords and fundamental groups determined to be independent Islamic states (radical or not).

The violence is beyond Western control unless stark military deployment is contemplated a route that many in the Western public is unlikely to support in the wake of the calamitous Iraq war nor will the Russians, Iranians, Assad, or China permit such a radical solution. The choices are difficult, imperfect peace or the pursuing of, whether subtlety or not, the continuation of violence.


Yet neither of these are the solution to the long-term problems as authoritarian regimes are susceptible to future protests, revolutions and acts of terror (whether or not they are done under just or unjust motives) whilst encouraging and supplying perpetrators (applied to all super-powers involved) of violence only makes the Middle East a hot-bed for radicalism, jihadi extremism, and human rights abuses. Ending the Syrian civil war and new Iraqi conflict is part of the solution to restoring a semblance of ‘order’ to the region, establishing dialogue with sides willing to engage and compromise and alienate support and further supplies to violent groups.

Easier said than done when you contemplate not only the divisions and rivalries but sheer number of sides involved. The procedure of the Geneva II Conference on Syria and the inability for several sides to come to a decisive political solution with little if no help from Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry indicates this issue.

Yes it is most certainly an Arabian winter in the Middle East. Hundreds of thousands are dead, thousands more starve, millions dwell in refugee camps and violence and torture tower over human rights in this political earthquake that has only gained momentum rather than being stopped. This is our generation’s concern and those of the future not just those who lived through the dialogue and ideologies of the Cold War.

The answers to solving the challenges between the West and Middle East cannot be presented in two-thousand words. The issue stretches out over most human debates conceivable be they social, economic, political, geographical, historical, religious, ideological concepts and more within both Europe and the Middle East.


These gaps have to narrowed on both sides of the spectrum if attitudes are to shift and radical elements are to be understood. Military power is the riskiest and least helpful way of solving the problem as summarised perfectly by author Jason Burke: ‘Language of high-tech weaponry, militarism and eradication. The latter may be useful to treat the symptom but does not, and will never, treat the disease’ (Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam).

The past as well as the present holds the key to the crisis and the whys are as important as how in any local, regional or global conflict. Western Europe, eastern Europe, and the Middle East are  entwined in mutual history and experience and seeing the opposing sides as alien entities is the pathway to unending conflict.  Failure is the passageway to success. We can do better lest the Arabian end game is defined by madness rather than hope, development, education, peace and mutual existence.

Matthew Williams



The rise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and ISIS: A Western Legacy

You’re free. And freedom is beautiful. And, you know, it’ll take time to restore chaos and order – order out of chaos. But we will.

George W. Bush, Washington, D.C., April 13, 2003

The fall of Mosul and the scenes of chaos within the city seem to be the first major and perhaps fatal challenge to Iraq’s fragile ‘democratic’ government. Can they see it through the whirlwind of sectarian violence and terrorist activity gripping the country unilaterally? Apparently not as Obama authorized renewed airstrikes against the barbaric ISIS and humanitarian airdrops for the besieged Yazidis. Either way it is a symbol of the utter failure of U.S and British policy in the country they invaded in 2003 and the Iraqi people are paying for it. 

What we are witnessing in the new Iraqi civil war is the violence that first began against coalition forces and among various sectarian groups. Now they deliver a severe challenge to the work of the U.S-British coalition  in Iraq. Not only were the Anglo-American forces unable to halt the violence, they only hastened the strife between Sunni and Shia.

A combination of long-term and short-term events have heralded this alarming turn of events. ISIS is a dual creation of the inherent instability created by the Bush administration and nurtured by the Syrian Civil War where U.S allies such Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been supplying the Sunni terrorist faction cutting a swath through Iraq. The social and economic deprivation of Iraq is well-documented and Iraq like every other nation in the region has been subject to dramatic change created by the Arab Spring (now very much in its bleak midwinter) which has created numerous pretexts for protest and violence whether it possesses moderate or extremist intentions.

In the vacuum of power created by the coalition in Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003) which saw the crude dismantlement of the political and military structure they have ironically witnessed the rise of new extremist factions, alongside Al-Qaeda, that Saddam Hussein was said to have harbored in 2003.  The latter accusation was proven false as was the fictional existence of WMDs. The Islamic State of Iraq in Syria (Isis) is so hard line that it was disavowed by Al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

It seems that the Western powers are reacting to an event that was inbound for almost a year if not more. Media outlets had covered the increased rise in violence, bombing and sectarian slaughter in the build up to the elections. What is being witnessed in Iraq is not a surprise as Iraq already a divided state was feeling the effects of the Syrian Civil War, extremists were involved and likely to return to Iraq to impose their doctrines.  It seems very perplexing that American intelligence could have been caught so badly off guard by this escalation of violence.

The fall of Mosul to ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi adds salt to the wounds of the politicians who took us into conflict without effective plan B, C and D. More importantly this impending disaster for Iraq spits in the face of all the men and women who have died or sustained physical and psychological trauma to their bodies under the inflexible and failed policies of their leaders in government. 4,487 U.S soldiers died for nothing as did nearly 600 coalition soldiers (315 of whom were British) and 160,000 Iraqi civilians (see Iraq casualties total on this link).

What did we fight for?  Ultimately it was not for the victims of 9/11, they were just the opportunity under which war could be undertaken. The military and political failure must be investigated by the Armed Forces and the Parliament thoroughly. If we salvage something from this bitter legacy that is Iraq and learn from it then it is the sole consolation in defeat (what else was it?).

Many have been foolish enough to propose that this was a victory and that the sacrifice was worth paying for creating a democracy within Iraq. The death in last year of 1000 people on average a month (the most horrific I remember being a Christmas day suicide bombing),  the fall of Mosul, the decent of Iraq into bloody civil war and its formation into a new ‘Somalia’ renders this void assumption laughable. The financial costs of this conflict are very apparent already. The threat to Iraq’s oil supply pushed global oil prices higher to $110 a barrel, adding to concerns about a supply shortfall from Libya. This will undoubtedly incur an American reaction as ISIS expand their financial firepower as well as the seizing key weapon caches in various towns and cities such as Mosul.

Though most of us are appalled by the violence consuming Syria, the gradual disintegration of Iraq since the withdrawal of firstly British and secondly U.S forces seems to indicate that the West does more harm than good when it comes to military intervention with no heed to long-term planning and consequences. If military intervention had occurred in August 2013 after the Ghouta chemical attacks who knows the damage we might have added to an already destabilised region.

Despite initial plans to keep some American soldiers in the country to assist the Iraqi security forces, no agreement could be reached between Baghdad and Washington, and the final US troops pulled out in December 2011 leaving security in the hands of the often less-than-effective Iraqi military (who had already sustained some 20,000 dead in the fight against militants between 2003 and 2011). Gradual withdrawal may have been a more viable solution to this problem now occurring in Iraq.

People, however, may be quick to condemn Obama, but the president was acting on one of the promises he kept in his presidential campaign; soldiers would return home from Iraq. This was the response to the demand of public opinion, a response to war exhaustion, a war which by 2008 had been quite completely exposed for all its violations whether it be human rights, the use of torture, international law, American ideals, and of the Iraqi people.

Saddam Hussein

That is the legacy of George Bush and his administration. Granted the joy of Saddam Hussein’s departure from power was welcome and clear to see in the wake of the initially successful invasion. His war crimes against the Kurds, the Iranians and brutal dictatorship he established over his own people were appalling however contentious the grounds for invading Iraq.

However when you create a void in power that has been established for decades under authoritarian rule what is required is covert, sensitive and patient long-term strategy that must be thoroughly planned before you topple the cruel structure lest it be replaced by a equally violent regime in the future.

This was the crucial  blunder of the world’s greatest military power. Some would argue I have the advantage of hindsight but it has been repeated again and again in U.S foreign policy throughout the 20th century.

It is the permanent stain upon Tony Blair’s foreign policy as Prime Minister when he followed Bush obediently into an unpredictable conflict. The shame is that people forget how well Blair performed in bringing an end to the civil war in Sierra Leone via Operation Palliser which defeated the murderous RUF in 2002. The British government pushed beyond their capabilities and bear equal shame in the unraveling of Iraq as a viable state.

The death of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan at the hands of U.S Special Operations Forces is perhaps the only pitiful consolation the United States’ have. The costs are so heavy though for the future of the Middle East and the Iraqi people that it can only be labelled a Pyrrhic victory. The tears of Jessica Chastain portraying C.I.A agent Maya Lambert in critically acclaimed film ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ are a subtle testimony to the emptiness of ‘victory’.

Tony Blair’s assumptions that the Americans and British didn’t cause this crisis is wrong. However in 2011 the Arab Spring, as he asserts, would have brought about protest against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein and potentially the same difficulties would have occurred. Though there are agreeable elements in Blair’s point about the Arab Spring that is a matter of debate rather than fact as he tries to deflect criticism.

For the United States numerous questioned should be asked of the previous administration whilst the current one reels in the wake of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s and ISIS’s most important victory yet. We shouldn’t be surprised as Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief with the British foreign intelligence service comments

“For the last 10 years or more, [Zawahiri] has been holed up in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area and hasn’t really done very much more than issue a few statements and videos…Whereas Baghdadi has done an amazing amount — he has captured cities, he has mobilized huge amounts of people (estimates say 12,000), he is killing ruthlessly throughout Iraq and Syria…. If you were a guy who wanted action, you would go with Baghdadi.”

ISIS are rumored to be executing pro-Western soldiers and officials.

It is harrowing to imagine an Islamist organisation that is rumored to be too extreme for Al-Qaeda. ISIS will never achieve global dominion that is apparently part of its doctrine but it will wreak havoc regionally and inspire pro-ISIS factions to grow in other areas of the world. The Americans may claim that had they been able to intervene in Syria in August 2013 that ISIS may not be the power it is to today. That would be an oversimplification at best.

It is also evidence of how Western perceptions of Islamic extremism were so narrow particularly in media and Western culture. Al-Qaeda and perhaps Al-Shabaab were the most well-known radical entities to represent Islam at its worst. Now the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram and many more have joined their ranks or inspired groups. They have emerged  either through the upheaval of the Arab Spring, hatred of perceived Russian authoritarianism, Western hypocrisy and influences, or as seen in the Africa lack of development, corruption, poverty and instability.

The question is what is the viable solution to this crisis, which joins the numerous other regional crises in the Middle East? The US has naturally pledged  to support the current Iraqi government with shipments of military equipment to the government this year and ramped up training for security forces. Its final collapse would confirm the final humiliation for the former administration. The pledge of Obama to place $5 billion towards the ‘Global War on Terror’ (now re branded Overseas Contingency Operations) seems more relevant than ever as JP Sotille quotes:

“It is, in effect, the return of a key Cold War policy of “regime support” for clients and “regime change” for non-client states, particularly in strategically-located areas and resource-rich regions. Regimes—whether or not they actually “reflect American values”—can count on U.S. financial, military and mission-integrated diplomatic support so long as they can claim to be endangered…not by communists, but by terrorists.

The United States look set to remain a major player in the region. The definitions and words to define the conflict may have become less dramatic then Bush’s ‘crusade’ and ‘global war’ yet the intentions remain clear that preventive warfare  (now a little more subtle than before) will continue; the use of drones, the increased use of the special forces and the placement of 9,000 U.S soldiers to remain in Afghanistan after the planned withdrawal of the military are evidence to their continued state of military alert. ISIS are amongst many a constituted threat to the well-being of national security.

The importance of Iran in this equation holds greater significance than ever as does the stance of Israel and Egypt in the ensuing chaos. The former stands to lend military assistance potentially to their neighbours. Israel stands to be ever increasingly threatened by the rise of extremist jihadist and Islamist movements and the fall-out of the Arab Spring. Three states are in states of civil war; Syria, Iraq and Libya. Turkey is beset by internal unrest whilst groups within Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have made sure the Syrian civil war has evolved into a regional proxy war.

Ending the Syrian war and extremism in Iraq would be the first step on the road to stabilizing the region in part yet it has become such a vibrant hot-bed for radicalism.  Assad’s brutality has  radicalized segments now and these radicals comprised of Islamic extremism, political extremists and criminals are blotting out those who are fighting for democracy, human rights and the end of authoritarian government.

The stalemate  and the Syria Geneva Conference II peace talks appear to confirm that the more things change the more they stay the same, maps and regions are redrawn and new and dangerous players emerge alongside the continuation in Syrian politics and the battle for influence on the conflict between the United States, Russia, and China. There is no doubt that Syria has irrevocably changed, but if anything it has taken a large step back from where it was in 2011 when the civil war began with both rationale and objectives shifting amongst rebel factions and regime.

The difficulty is that the West holds no leverage in the Middle East as the democratic entities it claims to support are being overwhelmed by extremists and authoritarians. Combine this with the failure of the Iraq War and the military preoccupation in Afghanistan, the West lacks financial, military, political, and moral credibility as well as constraints with which they can deal with the Middle Eastern firestorm.

Ultimately the ones with which we have the poorest relations at the moment hold the keys to a measure of stability that being Iran, Putin, and Assad. The issue is that like most a-typical Cold War conflicts military shipments and financial power is vested in opposing sides by the larger powers and the continuation of this only hampers the peace process and endangers more civilians.

To align with Assad would be viewed by some as the ultimate betrayal of those who fight for liberal and democratic goals, much like America aligned with Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran War. However what we have seen in Iraq is the sheer cost of removing or assisting the removal of a authoritarian regime without a viable, moderate and strong leadership to replace it. Assad’s fall it seems would only extend Syria’s prolonged suffering in hands of jihadists, extremists, drained moderates and a shattered government.

The Arab Spring has gained a deadly momentum one which threatens to consume the region for decades and it is taking the disturbing form (though completely different in context) of the Balkans in 1914, inherently unstable and threatening not just people who dwell in the Middle East but the doorstep of Europe.

With all options on the table according to Obama what’s next is a matter of dispute. A military intervention in Iraq would send ripples across the international scene.

 Matthew Williams (Six things that went wrong for Iraq)  (Who are ISIS?)




Rwanda 2014: Military Power-Politics

In my previous article we looked at the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide which took place between April – June of 1994, how it occurred and focused on how Hutu Power collaborating with Rwandan Government Forces conducted the mass extermination of the Tutsis and Hutu moderates. Now we consider the future of Rwanda, the legacy of the genocide, and the controversies surrounding the government of President Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) since they took power and what foreign onlookers are now starting to regard as another ‘ethnocracy’.

Let’s go back to the immediate aftermath of the mass killings. In just about one-hundred days 800,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsi’s and moderate Hutus were dead, millions more were refugees scattered across Central Africa and Rwanda was now the poorest country in the world, all infrastructure had been stripped, destroyed or pillaged. Kigali (Rwanda’s capital) and surrounding towns and countryside reeked death as countless bodies clogged the rivers, the stench of rotting flesh all-around as corpses, if not thrown into the mass-graves, baked in the tropical sunshine.

In a nut-shell Rwanda was now the archetypal ‘failed state’ and a paradise on earth was now a ghostly landscape, chillingly silent in the wake of self-destruction. Reconstructing the country would require immense economic, political, military vision and most importantly social reconciliation. How do you repair the community after such a personalised mass-slaughter where neighbours and families, every structure of society turned upon each other? One in five Hutu males were complicit in the slaughter of their countrymen.

The Rwandan Genocide 1994 left over 800,000 Rwandans dead.

This obstacles to re-construction also coincided with trouble brewing in Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of Congo) where a tragedy of equal, if not greater proportions were unfolding. The influx of refugees accompanied by a large segment of the previous genocidal regime fleeing in the wake of the RPF had made camp in the eastern Congo prompting a humanitarian crisis and the Congolese War. The genocidal elements occupying these refugee camps sole plan was to continue their work; that being the slaughter of Tutsis, many of whom had migrated to the Congo in both the 19th and 20th century both for economic opportunities due to the demographic density of Rwanda and to escape persecution at the hands of both Hutu officials and Belgian colonialists.

Hutu Power, the akuzu (the inner elements of the former government responsible for planning the genocide), and the Interahamwe keen to return to power in Rwanda were supported by an unlikely element; the international community whose humanitarian aid in the form of supplies, money, and more fell into the hands of the grateful murderers.

The refugee camps fast became military camps and the refugees who were innocent or wanted to return to Rwanda became human shields, those who tried to leave were often murdered by the militants. The international community instead of helping Kagame re-build the nation replenished those who had committed atrocities conjoining the internal problems with the external regional crisis consuming Central Africa.

For Kagame, strategy and military logistics dictated that these camps had to be dismantled and the refugees returned home to help re-assemble their country, or ultimately face trial for crimes against humanity. The RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) flexed its muscles and acted upon the sheer ineptitude of the international community already guilty of its previous indifference to the slaughter in Rwanda and proceeded to invade Zaire which saw the removal of President Mobutu.

This was then followed by the creation of several puppet factions within the Democratic Republic of Congo by from military headquarters in Kigali. These factions would be become pawns in Rwanda’s determination to maintain control both of the vast economic resources in the eastern Congo, influence the political scene in the Democratic Republic of Congo and bring those responsible for the genocide in Rwanda to justice.

Paul Kagame has supported the proxy way in the Congo

On the face of it Kagame nicknamed ‘Africa’s Napoleon Bonaparte’ received acclaim from the majority of the international community. Between 1994-2003 he had stabilized a collapsed country, secured their interests abroad and against all the odds consolidated power in Kigali whilst his country, a tiny neighbour of the Democratic Republic of Congo, had punched above its weight in terms of influencing geo-political change. Above all he had uprooted the genocidal regime of Habyarimana along with all the extremists elements that accompanied it.

Something darker however co-existed with this triumph and has since pervaded Rwanda’s recovery, that Kagame for all his achievements has merely established a military ethnocracy, this time by the Tutsis. Though many Hutus are present in the current government and the first president following the genocide (Pasteur Bizimungu) was an ethnic Hutu, it is clear that the Tutsis and Kagame along with the RPA continue to dictate the political scene as essentially a de-facto one party state.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front has violated human rights, slaughtered many civilians in the wake of the genocide, murdered in excess those who criticise the regime, and has funded a proxy war in the Democratic Republic of Congo for its own gain.

The argument by the RPF that they are still bringing the former regime to justice is wearing thin, not to mention the use of the tragedy in 1994 as a shield against criticism to their actions externally (the funding of insurgences such as M23 in the Congo) or internally (the hamstringing of political opponents who if in exile die mysteriously abroad). The human rights of the prisoners were also shocking as they were jam-packed with both dissenters and killers.

Gitarama Central Prison in Muhanga District Southern Province of Rwanda is known as one of the world’s worst prisons.

In fact not only is it fascinating to hear that in recent years former allies of Kagame have described his regime as a a one party, arbitrary and secretive police state, but also to understand that the RPF engaged in systematic slaughter of the very people they were trying to save. Gerard Prunier, an expert on the Continental War (1994-2005) and the Rwandan Genocide claims that between early April and late September the RPF ‘killed between 25,000 and 45,000 people including Tutsi‘ with almost complete indifference to their plight. The selected killer teams, assembled the people for a “peace and reconciliation meeting” before indiscriminately slaughtering them and disposing of the corpses in mass graves or incinerating them.

It should be agreed that the international community, particularly the French, Belgium and the United States deserve condemnation; their inaction enough to suggest that morally they are certainly culpable as they so frequently claim to champion the halting of genocide, humanitarianism and moral righteousness. However using the legacy of the genocide as a pretext for political and economic objectivity is wrong and has blemished the memory of the genocide and Rwanda’s recovery even after two decades.

The military remains the main political tool of Paul Kagame’s regime and if you think about it, it does make sense. Kagame and his followers were born into and moulded by conflict, they have known war their entire lives fighting firstly for Uganda’s Museveni against Obote, secondly against the French and RGF under Habyarimana and thirdly against the RGF again during the genocide. It is only natural to think that men shaped by discipline and war would form an authoritarian/military dictatorship sculpted to some extent by our own guilt prompted by our failings in 1994. Kagame is not naturally a democrat, he is a military commander and a very good one at that.

Like Abraham Lincoln opinions will remain divided on whether his actions, like Kagame’s are justified a necessary evil to re-build a nation afflicted by civil war and in Rwanda’s case heal ethnic tensions. It is a delicate issue as it difficult to prove that Kagame was responsible for the reprisal killings in 1994 and the massacre at the Kibeho refugee camp. Nevertheless as Tzvetan Todorov quotes;

“Vengeance settles nothing; its adds new violence to the old violence. On the contrary, it only prepares the way for new explosions.”

The RPA have been instigated in various massacres both in their own country and in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the most notorious off which being the Kibeho massacre (1995), where over 4,000 refugees composed of Rwandan civilians were slaughtered by members of the RPA. To this day the figure calculated by Kagame stands at 338 dead despite several eyewitnesses which included thirty-two Australian soldiers and medical officers.

In the Austrailian Army Journal, Paul Jordan stated; “While there little that we could have done to stop the killings, I believe that, if Australians had not been there as witnesses to the massacre, the RPA would have killed every single person in the camp.” Kibeho was a massacre (pictured below) that echoes Srebrenica the only difference being that the RPF were more  content to conceal their role in murdering their own civilians.

How far would you go to protect your nation’s interests and consolidate your own position in Africa’s by-enlarge Machiavellian jungle? Rene Lemarchand points out that ‘Rwanda’s military presence in eastern Congo continues to generate enormous resentment; both Congolese and the Rwandan Tutsi’ being ‘rescued’ by their government. It shouldn’t be doubted that Rwanda has made astounding progress under Kagame with continued ‘peace’, stability, substantial economic growth being positive traits attributed to his regime.

These feats seem impossible to fathom given the condition of Rwanda in 1994, but it has been done at considerable cost to his reputation in recent years. When will he give up his power and how long will peace last if he continues to dominate the political scene? Rwanda cannot banish the ghosts of its past if it does not adopt anything but authoritarian governments where military and political actions are exempt from criticism and those that do face repression, even death within the halls of power. “You cannot betray Rwanda and get away with it. There are consequences for betraying your country…..what remains to be seen is how you will fall victim..” were Kagame’s words in the wake of the discovery of Mr Karegeya (the former intelligence chief and a key member of the RPF) body in South Africa.

These are unnerving words for a man who claims to run a fair political society and Rwandan exiles abroad are terrified of the repercussions of criticism.

Memory of mass-murder,,1241780_4,00.jpg

As onlookers, we can criticise the current government and how it has tarnished the memory of genocide (in any nation which has endured it, it is an issue of high sensitivity and tension) yet for those of us who live in a ‘civilised’ world it is almost impossible to fathom the sheer brutality of the violence that engulfed Rwanda in 1994.  It is difficult to imagine such carnage so physical and all-encompassing to every natural human sense.

How authoritarian would the United States government become in the wake of the slaughter of its people?  You only have to look at how militant Israel is in its foreign policy and part of that is the legacy of genocide, memories of vulnerability and the need to defend yourself from repetition even if the circumstances were extraordinary.

How would a nation come to terms with such violence?  Germany has engaged with its past progressively, whilst Japan and Rwanda continue to come to grips with the atrocities that they themselves have commited. Every culture’s genocide be it Asian, European or African in this case is different and you cannot compare each genocide or mass-slaughter perpetrated.

It seems that the regime paranoid of a return to violent ethnic conflict have become tyrannical.  Many Rwandan exiles abroad are fearful of retribution from Kagame’s government. Like an over-protective parent, the Rwandan Patriotic Front risks smothering its child denying it both the ability to develop and to come to terms with its traumatic past.

As Gerard Prunier perfectly places it; “The atrociousness  of Hutu Power’s ideology has tainted the victors…it has contaminated all social relations and perverted political calculations.” The result is an authoritarian, police state desperate to safe-guard its interests and that is not a peaceful state.

Matthew Williams

France’s Dance with Death in Rwanda

France has a both tempestuous and intriguing relationship with Africa. To be fair most former colonialists do given the brutality of the ‘Scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century and early 20th century. They are the most frequent interventionists in African conflict as we have seen in Mali and the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic. France’s role in the Rwandan genocide still sparks controversy to this very day as relations between the two countries appeared to drastically sour after Kagame’s verbal condemnation of the French government who supposedly propped up Habyarimana’s genocidal regime known as the akuzu or ‘Network Zero’. 

Belgium created the unstable mainframe for Rwandan politics during its colonial rule of the country, the United States and United Nations did nothing in the face of overwhelming evidence that genocide was occurring but France were intimate allies with ‘Network Zero’. They bear the greatest mark of shame out of all the Western powers in the horrors of 1994. Kagame’s criticism is correct, but he is not without controversy funding a proxy war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nevertheless numerous authors including Daniela Kroslak and Andrew Wallis, journalists and high ranking officials such as Romeo Dallaire have given damning verdicts of France’s role.

Such a large group with such varying backgrounds cannot be mere coincidence. The facts are there; France provided the regime with diplomatic, military, and financial support. Their fingerprints are all over the place and though they may not have directly contributed to the slaughter on the ground they moulded a genocidal state. If they were so keen not be branded as the Machiavellian sculptor why does Madame Agathe (Mrs Habyarimana), regarded as the real power behind the presidential throne and central figure in the akazu, still reside in France and has not been long ago condemned as a war criminal or brought those they ‘mistakenly’ supported to justice?

Let us rewind back to 1987, seven years before the genocide. This was the year the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), originally a coalition of factions opposed to Habyarimana’s regime, was consolidated by a group of Tutsi refugees in southern Uganda.

Kagame 1990-1994 and the RPF were seen by the French as terrorists
Kagame 1990-1994 and the RPF were seen by the French as terrorists

The rise of the RPF coincided with another significant event. The previous year (1986) a thirty-nine year old began his role as adviser to his father on African affairs in the French government. His name was Jean Christophe Mitterrand, son of Francois Mitterrand (the former president of France). His appointment to the African Unit gave him direct access to all Francophone African state leaders and likely an understanding of inner circles of power in which they operated.

The seventeen francophone states in Africa constituted the only region in the world where France retained enough influence to support its claims to medium power status’ (Meredith, State of Africa, p.493) and its position as a major power on the international stage. France is one of the key five members on the United Nations Council. France like most significant Cold War powers did not want to lose influence in global politics and under such circumstances where Cold War ideologies, though dying in the 1980s, still held sway in halls of power and pervaded the psychologies of many politicians. The RPF (formed by commanders once loyal to the English speaking Uganda’s state) constituted a major threat to this status

The French in the late 1980s and 1990s seemed to be gripped by fears of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ influence in Africa and jealously guarded both her economic and cultural interests. The paranoia of this British neo-imperialism and the geo-political threat to France’s hegemony in Africa had to be dealt with even if it meant turning a blind eye to human rights abuses during the time of tyrants whereby political power and economic wealth remained in the hands of the few during the 1980s.

‘This included Habyarimana and his powerful Hutu clique (MRND) which had made considerable financial benefits under an abusive system of patronage and clientism since  Habyarimana seized power in 1973. In 1975 France had also signed a defence pact with the Rwandan government. Jean Christophe Mitterrand was to head operations to maintain and enhance relationships with the Francophone states in Africa. These leaders were quick to try to curry favour from his department which Mitterrand in turned into an extensive network of personal connections which in turn improved his ability to influence strategy across Africa. Naturally he would hold the ear of his father. Alistair Cole highlights some interesting facts about Francois Mitterrand’s political power:

“Portrayals of Francois Mitterrand as a republican monarch have claimed support for their theses by focusing on his use of patronage, especially in his promotion of members of his own family to prominent positions….which are informative of his political persona.”

Habyarimana similarly held a tight family based power structure from his home region of Gisenyi in northern Rwanda dominated by Hutus and it is a well-known fact that he developed a close friendship with Jean Christophe Mitterrand and Francois Mitterrand. Similar power structures equaled similar interests and the relationship between Jean Christophe and President Habyarimana was not solely a friendship, but a business partnership as Dallaire notes when he met military general Lafourcade  and his staff officers in Goma during Operation Turquoise (Dallaire, SHWTD, p.450). Jean Christophe, as did his father, had plenty to lose on a potential RPF victory in both their first invasion in 1990 and their second invasion in 1994 during the genocide.

Even Habyarimana’s death was coated in his strong relationship to the French President. His plane (a private Falcon 50 French-built super mid-sized, long-range corporate jet) was a personal present from Francois Mitterrand. It was shot out of the sky and sparked the Rwandan genocide. It should also be noted that Jean Christophe was inherently corrupt and greedy politician who given thirty months on probation for tax evasion and was imprisoned under allegations of complicity of arms traffic.

Jean-Christophe Mitterrand
Jean-Christophe Mitterrand

 The first invasion of the RPF (October 1990) sucked France into the genocidal quagmire as they deployed French soldiers to uphold the defence pact (signed in 1975). These included the 8th Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment, the 2nd French Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment3rd Marine Infantry Parachute Regiment and 13th Parachute Dragoon Regiment; a considerable show of strength for a government claiming to be merely protecting French nationals in Rwanda.

Military support was also included considerable logistical support to the Rwandan Government Forces and financial support for Habyarimana’s sagging regime. The RPF guerrilla army (4,000 strong) was repulsed by the combined forces and the repercussions of the invasion were to be fatal for thousands of Tutsis, thanks to Operation Noroit. Gerard Prunier commented that their was little hesitancy in sending troops to Rwanda in 1990, that when ‘Habyarimana telephoned the Africa Unit to speak to Jean-Christophe Mitterand….he was reassured “We are going to send him a few boys, old man Habyarimana. We are going to bail him out” were Jean-Christophe’s words with an added wink…’ (Meredith, State of Africa, p.494)

This bail out mentioned was that had it not been for French intervention Habyarimana’s regime, already on its knees during a turbulent 1980s, would have fallen. Instead it was allowed to endure and use the ‘Tutsi’ invasion as a pretext towards extermination and consolidate its weakening power base, unifying opposition opposed to Habyarimana’s monopoly against the Tutsi minority.  France aided this consolidation of power and tightened the security of a regime making a transition to a genocidal one to remain in power.

It is highly unlikely that France did not possess vast quantities of information that detailed the vast human rights abuses of the Rwandan population. Thousands were detained by Habyarimana as political repression escalated and hundreds of Tutsis were slaughtered; a reaction to the invasion of the RPF in 1990. Also such a closeness to the regime would likely mean that the Africa Unit understood very the well the nature of Habyarimana’s and his compatriots ideologies and personal views on Tutsis.

This is where French complicity began to take shape. The problem in this debate is that it is difficult to garner whether the French government either made a serious error of interpreting the situation in Rwanda, turned a blind eye to the atrocities of a clearly genocidal regime or that they were directly aiding the Rwandan government’s planned violence.  The country’s political elite in a one-party state  embraced Paris as a source of cultural identity anprotection and France like any indulging parent provided such protection to a regime with devious intentions. My view is that it was a combination of serious miscalculations in turning the blind eye to the clear dangers of Habyarimana’s regime liquidating what France may have seen as opposition which eventually meant the entire ethnic Tutsi population. 

French Troops training the Interahamwe militia
French Troops training the Interahamwe militia

French complicity increased dramatically after 1990. The period between 1990-1994 brought about the biggest questions over the French government’s knowledge of the genocide. Was it sheer incompetence on the ground that they couldn’t see the sinister signs? Was it simply that what the French saw as a ‘defensive’ operation were misread? Or did they simply not care about the consequences for the Tutsis in the context of geo-political chessboard, that no one would notice or care like the Zero Network?

The latter seems the most likely as the French in-particular showed considerable prejudice towards the RPF whom some in government branded the ‘Khmer Noir’ (Khmer Black), a distasteful comparison to the rebels conducting genocide in Cambodia under Pol Pot. The French military in Operation Turquoise continued to believe that the RPF were the enemy, the men behind the killings, and that the men they were safeguarding into Zaire were victims of the civil war started by the Tutsi rebels.

Numerous authors have illustrated the French military investment and training that was put into the extremist Hutu organisations such as CDR, akazu and Hutu Power. According to Meredith the Rwandan Government Forces were increased to from 9,000 men in October 1990 to 28,000 men by 1991 whilst France provided both counter-insurgency strategies and training to the incoherent ramble of soldiers. Alex Wallis provides even more detail;

“In the 1990-1994 period the French equipped the Rwandan army with…the most modern weaponry available. The French….had to finance and ship the armaments….officially and unofficially…. to the RGF and train…an unskilled army to use the weaponry….ignoring a new 1992 EU directive aimed at ‘ethical’ deliveries of arms to regions in a state of war or internal unrest.”

According to Wallis, French weapon exports to Rwanda  totaled $24 million (this included unofficial/black-market/illegal sales) out of $100 million of the total weapon imports to Rwanda in this period. When a particular journalist during this period questioned Colonel Bernard Cussac on supplying a regime known for its human rights abuses he retorted ‘are you saying providing military assistance is a human rights violation?!’

Hardly a direct answer given the circumstances and proof of brutal violence in Rwanda. Whilst the military expenditure was in excess, Rwanda’s economy nosedived and the people suffered in poverty. From this extremism grew, encouraged by the Rwandan government who needed a scapegoat for their economic woes.

The French trainers lived within the camps and helped train both the RGF and militias who would conduct the genocide. It would not be surprising if the French military, like most soldiers, would ‘form a strong bond with the RGF soldiers’ the French joining them at local bars to mix with them where naturally political views on the Tutsis and RPF would be communicated to the French.

These small things do make a difference as trainers and soldiers in Rwanda would have gained, after several years or even months on the ground, an understanding of the poisonous atmosphere in the country, nor would they have not informed headquarters of the problems. It is highly unlikely that the French embassy and military did not pick up on the extremist propaganda in the Kangura (which included a picture of Habyarimana and Mitterrand stating the latter was ‘a true friend of Rwanda’) and Hutu Power Radio.

Once the genocide began the French evacuated key members of the network and northern Hutu clique responsible for planning the genocide including Agathe amongst their nationals. Whilst they saved the elite bloated on the excesses of corruption and aid meant for the Rwandan people, they left thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus to die at the hands of the Interahamwe.

France, holding a key position in the United Nations, did not want 800,000 corpses to appear on their doorstep so they placed faith in the fact that the RGF would win the war whom the French continued to support during the conflict. Similarly Colonel Bagasora who was imprisoned for war crimes and was a key planner of the genocide was allowed to pass through the French’s safety net during Operation Turquoise in June 1994. He was followed by thousands of Hutus who had taken part in the killings.

The French adamantly opposed a Belgian request at the United Nations to intervene militarily during the early stages of the genocide as they knew foreign intervention like Operation Noroit in 1990 would spell doom for the RGF as French intervention had done for the RPF’s original invasion. European troops combined with that of Romeo Dallaire’s 2500 men would have given the RPF overwhelming superiority strategically as they were placed at the epicentre of both the government stronghold, Kigali and that of the genocide.

French soldier protecting Hutu refugees, amongst them many killers and Hutu extremists complicit in mass-murder
French soldier protecting Hutu refugees, amongst them many killers and Hutu extremists complicit in mass-murder×682.jpg

This would seem strange given the supposed military superiority of the RGF, but the French did not predict that the regime would invest so much time in conducting their liquidation of the Tutsi. This tactic was played by the Nazi regime during World War II to wipe out the Jews and this in turn had a debilitating effect on their ability to wage war on the Soviet juggernaut. The French were stalling to allow either their allies to regain their composure. It was embarrassing on all accounts both because they had invested millions of francs in a military which was still tactically inferior to the RPF and Kagame and they hadn’t trained the RGF on a balanced basis. Dallaire noted this even before the onset of genocide.

“I visited the RGF side of the demilitarized zone…the front-line units of the army were composed of poorly trained recruits…using children…. who lacked weapons, food, medical supplies, and above all leadership and morale. There was a double standard in this army:  high for the elite units (including the Presidential Guard) and low for the rest of the army.” (Dallaire, SHWTD, p.68)

Operation Turquoise evidently was done to prop up the regime and the French military safeguarding the passage of millions of Hutu extremists and Hutu refugees. However it was clear that the reality of genocide brought those who saw the RPF as the prime enemy to their senses as well as the French media. Many became disgusted with their role in helping the Hutus escape and the conduct of the massacres.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise though as French soldiers had witnessed butchery in the early stages of genocide during the evacuation of refugees.The government meanwhile shifted uncomfortably in their seats as their hands were stained with the blood of thousands. If they had been so determined to halt the killings why hadn’t they provided information at the U.N Security Council?

The clothes of victims killed during the Rwandan genocide laid out in the Nyamata Church in Nyamata
The clothes of victims killed during the Rwandan genocide laid out in the Nyamata Church in Nyamata

Rwanda is France’s Machiavellian jungle. The lack of investigations into their role in not just funding the slaughter, but aiding the escape of thousands of war criminals is both shocking and perplexing. For sure Kagame’s accusations were harsh in light of his own flaws as a leader, but Kagame is a soldier at heart, not a democrat and he has witnessed many of his friends and soldiers die at the hands of French allies supplied with French weapons, can you blame him for pointing the finger? The French government held the RPF in contempt before, during, and after the genocide and as Nicolas Sarkozy recognized serious errors of judgment” and “a kind of blindness” by France over the issue when he visited.

Instead of helping them escape, why have they not essentially tracked down  the ‘Hitlers’ and ‘Himmlers’ of Rwanda, the planners of mass-atrocity? France, only less than a month ago, on 15th March 2014 made their first conviction against the former Rwandan government. After twenty years of failing to answer questions and problems that still reverberate to this very day, you must suspect that France are trying to bury something sinister.

Madame Agathe is still at large and in France. She is wanted for war crimes.
Madame Agathe is still at large and in France. She is wanted for war crimes.

These problems must be understood in the wider context not simply because it is a key historical debate but also in the understanding French motives for current operations in the Central African Republic. Is this an opportunity for them to banish the ghosts of Rwanda by saving Muslims being ethnically cleansed from the anti-balaka?

This is not a problem of the past. It is a contemporary problem and must be addressed. Even if they did gravely miscalculate and were mistaken to supply a murderous regime, they still have blood on their hands and as yet have not investigated or even attempted to wash their hands of the accusations that they directly aided a genocidal regime. As such can the French government complain that history judges them so harshly in the wake of some of darkest moments in world history? The French people, Rwanda and the world need answers from a government’s unanswered questions.

Matthew Williams

Evading Responsibility: The United States and the Rwandan Genocide

“We are doing our calculations back here, and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”

U.S officer at the Pentagon (1994)

Fact: The Rwandan genocide (1994) could have been stopped. This is no exaggeration. The U.S.A, the U.N, the French, and Belgium in-particular had the power with which to halt it even when it was inevitable by late 1993.

The Holocaust and the Armenian genocide are ones that in their day and age were difficult to gauge because the word ‘genocide’ did not exist and was therefore more difficult to define. In the 1900s it was merely known by Lemkin (the man who invented the term ‘genocide’) as ‘race murder’. The mass-slaughter of 800,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the 1990s should have, in the hailed age of modernity and the relative globalisation of the world in the post-Cold War era, been prevented. Instead the U.S.A continued its unnerving trend of having not intervened in genocide even though they knew it was occurring. Clinton did not have one emergency meeting concerning Rwanda in his foreign policy agenda.

The role of the international community changed my opinion on many things in the Western world. I don’t doubt I was a part of it and many stages but it was most certainly a serious problem for me that many parts of the Western world societies, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom suffer from; a culture of impunity. Naturally I do not suggest this should be prescribed to every individual in these specific countries.

My attitude of the United States was re-shaped (though I had heard of the controversy of Iraq, Afghanistan and more, yet not to such a detailed level) markedly by their role in the Rwanda’s plight in 1994 and beyond.  ‘Self-interest‘ or ‘American interests‘ shape their foreign policy and were so often repeated within the halls of the White House in the Rwandan debacle. I couldn’t fathom the possibility that such a selfish notion could come from a nation who believed in the ‘new world order’ after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Five years later the White House, without contest, let one million people die during the ‘Pax Americana’. Though ultimately the responsibility of the genocide lies with those who perpetrated it I found myself disillusioned; that the nation with the most powerful military and financial muscle of its time could not find the courage to halt the killings, that the European powers did nothing bar wagging their fingers at the extremist officials in the Rwandan government. The current United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers argues this with a stack of unmistakable evidence as does Romeo Dallaire (the Canadian U.N Commander of United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda or UNAMIR).

Now many of you who read may think “They didn’t know! How could they predict such an atrocity, a seismic event in human history?” I argue that they were not only well-informed, but also did everything within there power to not get involved and to uphold the moral rules of war that they were expected to obligate. After this clarified to me that the United States, and in-fact most big power players, largely don’t play by the rules of international law unless they feel it benefits them. The U.S.A, the most powerful military and intelligence gathering force on the planet were not only inactive during the genocide, they were embarrassed and ultimately suffered a diplomatic defeat at the hands of the alliance of extremist Hutu factions during and after the genocide. I do not entirely point the finger though at the United States. France, Belgium and the United Nations headquarters were also big players in failing Rwanda.

Build-Up of Evidence

The United States’ ability to collect, retrieve, and analyse evidence through the provision of intelligence is second to none.  For example as Samantha Power points out ‘no other atrocity campaign in the 20th century was better monitored…’ than the Serbs ethnic cleansing. Jon Western was apparently ‘sifting through some 1000 documents’ a day on reports from the front in Bosnia. 

They would certainly have had enough evidence during and even before the ‘Network Zero’ campaign that mass-killings were inevitable. Disorganisation and lack of cohesion between various nations, departments and institutions and not to mention ignoring facts proved to be a thorn in U.S defence that they couldn’t do anything about the genocide.

U.S Intelligence

  • 1992: Hutu Power had stockpiled eighty-five tons of weaponry
  • 1993: CIA study found that forty million tons of small arms had been transferred to Rwanda.
  • Several massacres of Tutsis had already occurred. Practice runs for impending genocide.
  • Extremist propaganda was rapidly increasing.
  • A U.N official had warned of an impending genocide (much like in the current crisis in the Central African Republic which increased intervention forces).
  • There was a U.S embassy in Rwanda so it was not like they would be misinformed of events occurring within the country nor would they be naive to the fact that France had close connections to the genocidal regime who they were supplying, training, and supporting politically. They had plenty of Rwandans within the embassy as well (who they kindly left to die when war broke out).
  • A government analyst in Washington predicted that the reigniting of conflict would result in the deaths of 1.5 million people.

International Commission of Investigation

The commission was created to investigate the increase of violence in Rwanda between 1992-1993 and they presented ominous evidence in March 1993.

  • Detailed the fact that 10,000 Tutsis had already been detained by Habyarinama’s regime and 2,000 murdered.
  • Detailed horrific crimes against humanity similar to the build up of violence in the former Yugoslavia.
  • Detailed the increase in racist and violent propaganda evoked by Hutu Power Radio and the Kangura (news letter) led by Hassan Ngeze, an entrepreneur recruited by the government including the Hutu Ten Commandments (pictured below)
  • Detailed the clear likelihood of genocide.

The ‘Dallaire Fax’

Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UNAMIR (the U.N’s mission to Rwanda had the odds stacked against him from the start. Despite the failure of his mission (largely due to United Nations headquarters and the Western powers stance) he adapted to and performed in circumstances of appalling moral pressure. He was given no preparation plans or details on the ground regarding the utmost seriousness of Rwanda’s predicament. The U.N, the U.S.A, the Commission, NGOs, no one provided him the key details of what he was really up against.

Despite a lack of manpower, institutional support, data, and logistical support he managed to come to conclusions fairly rapidly as to the intentions of several officials in Rwandan government. The ‘Dallaire fax’ (in the link below), sent to none other than Kofi Annan, detailed the information provided by the informant dubbed ‘Jean-Pierre’ (a former security member of the president) of the plans of Hutu Power in exchange for asylum for himself and his family. This included:

  • Death squad lists targeted at Tutsi politicians and Hutu moderates.
  • The location of weapon caches all over Kigali (Rwanda’s capital)
  • The training of Interahamwe militia to conduct killing of Tutsis at a rapid pace.
  • The existence of rogue factions in Habyarinama’s circle who opposed the Arusha Peace Accords.
  • The explicit intention of the Hutu extremists to target Belgian soldiers, kill them and force a U.N withdrawal. (Dallaire Fax)

Dallaire intended to take the initiative. Three things happened.

  1. Dallaire was told to not take action against the Hutu extremists in the face of overwhelming evidence of planned slaughter.
  2. He was instructed to tell Habyarinama and his inner circle the details of these discoveries (the men planning the genocide!)
  3. He was not to provide asylum to ‘Jean-Pierre’ and his family who had risked his life to provide the classified information.

The result was the loss of Dallaire’s initiative and ability to destabilise the plans of the Hutu extremists. The U.N did not want to risk the death of peacekeepers on the ground on the concerns of a cowboy commander. The U.N was on its knees in the wake of the campaign failure in Somalia and their were genuine fears that such actions and consequences of Dallaire taking action could result in the closure of the U.N. The U.N was a scapegoat of the U.S.A in the wake of their military disaster in Mogadishu (see film ‘Black Hawk Down’)

The combination of evidence that Dallaire lacked before with that of  his new found information in February 1994 pointed to clear  preparations for forthcoming mass-killings, ethnic cleansing and civil war, even if people including Dallaire weren’t clear that it would be genocide.

Reconnaissance Team 

According to Samantha Power, a reconnaissance team comprised of several members of the United States Marine Corps were secretly dispatched to Rwanda during the early stages of the genocide. They witnessed first hand the rapid pace at which people were dying on the ground and the gruesome way in which people were dying which according to the people they reported back to left them visibly shaken and horrified.

Direct first-hand evidence from the U.S military of slaughter on an unimaginable scale on top of hard-found evidence provided by different sources including the U.N ground commander, an International Commission, and various insiders including journalists which detailed, before and during the genocide evidence of methodical and planned killings.  No wonder people hold the U.S.A culpable in the Rwandan genocide for their inaction.

The Shadow of Somalia


Somalia was a disaster for the U.S.A and the United Nations. The timing of ‘Black Hawk Down’ could not have been more poorly timed for Rwanda in terms of U.N and U.S conduct in humanitarian affairs. The deaths of eighteen U.S servicemen and more U.N peacekeepers in Somalia meant that commitment to humanitarian missions was received coldly by U.S foreign policy makers. Effectively the U.N were made scapegoats by U.S policy failures. The shadow of Somalia severely strained relations between the U.N and the U.S and the latter decided that through the newly introduced ‘PPD-5’ document (created by Richard Clark pictured below) that humanitarian missions should involve zero risk and should only be of interest if the particularly country in question concerned U.S interests.

UNOSOM II and UNITAF were lessons that can be learned by states, global organizations and the United Nations in how not to conduct/enforce a peacekeeping population in a country ripped apart by civil strife. This is not simply eluding to the logistical difficulties facing the peacekeeping forces, nor the failure of the U.N to operate as a coercive unit (allowing the U.S to operate almost unilaterally in the stages before ‘Operation Gothic Serpent’), but also to the moral and humanitarian failure to the Somali people. I say moral failures under the illusion that the nation states and politicians contributing to the  peacekeeping forces entered Somalia considering the lives of their soldiers more valuable than the lives of the Somali people, an inexcusable idea to carry into a humanitarian operation.

This attitude pervaded operations in the Balkans and escalated in Rwanda where Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) was told by a U.S official at the White House at the end of the Rwandan genocide that ‘it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans’ to justify the risking of the life of one American soldier and to have intervened in the butchery of eight-hundred thousand to a million Tutsi and Hutu moderates. That is roughly ten soldiers, whilst the Belgians insisted that, after losing ten soldiers in the early stages of the genocide conducted by Hutu Power, MRND and the Interahamwe that the lives of Rwandans were not worth risking one more Belgian soldier.

For more on Somalia and the events that occured read my post detailing the 20th anniversary of the Battle of Mogadishu.


Yugoslavia: the war in the Balkans though mishandled by the United States, NATO and the EU was considered more important than Rwanda’s plight. Europeans mattered more than Africans, that was just the way it was to the majority of European and American policy-makers. This was similar of the international community and the media in general who were either preoccupied by Mandela’s triumphant election or the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Rwanda held no economic, strategic or political importance to the Western powers, a thing directly exploited by the genocidal regime in Rwanda.

Rules of Genocide Intervention

Madeline Albright played a key role in blocking the  United States role in Rwanda.
Madeline Albright played a key role in blocking the United States role in Rwanda.

The Americans deliberately, even against all the evidence on the ground of mass slaughter, refused to the use the term ‘genocide’. The use of the term would have meant they would have had to intervene under the U.N Charter, under moral obligation, and public pressure and indignity. This was a similar tactic used in the Balkans when the Serbs were methodically cleansing Muslims under the Bush administration. The rule of thumb was not to use the word ‘genocide’; it removed accountability to act. It paralleled  the killers tactics who used the word ‘work’ or ‘by-product of war’ knowing these words would not prompt moral outcry as they didn’t quite have the same ring as genocide.

They United States also played a key role with the rest of the U.N Council in reducing Dallaire’s ground-forces from 2,500 to 250 men.  Rwanda will be a stain on Madeline Albright’s career. At this precise point they opened the flood gates for increased killing and reduced even the capability of Dallaire’s forces to protect civilians, even though they could not engage the militia in armed combat. Dallaire and his brave 250 men saved thousands of lives simply because they bore the U.N insignia and wore the blue helmets and berets. Imagine what they could have accomplished with 2,500. The creation of UNAMIR II illustrated that the U.S.A and its allies had made a crucial error that affected events on the ground.

Pentagon’s Military Options

As the genocide got underway it was already clear the deployment of U.S ground forces was out of the question and that the U.S government already knew that hundreds of thousands would die. 

Yet they did nothing. They didn’t even consider indirect engagement in halting genocide via jamming Hutu Power Radio via aircraft. These broadcasts spread fear amongst the Rwandan populace, urged participation in the killing, shamed those who sought not to participate, and in many cases, specifically named and provided the whereabouts of those to be killed.  As such, the radio broadcasts were essential to the fulfillment of the program of extermination.

The answer was no. The Pentagon simply wanted the case of Rwanda to vanish, disappear amdist paperwork. Why did they rule out the option? The fueling costs were tallied at $8500 dollars. Essentially to the Pentagon, the some 8000 Tutsis (though not always killed as a result of the Hutu Power Radio tactics) who died each day were not worth $1.06. The latter sum was the amount required to save even one life. This was rejected on the May 5th so if you add the sum up of the remaining days of the genocide (which ended July 10th)  it would have cost them between $600,000 – $650,000, which is hardly a dent in the war machine of the United States when you consider the extent to which they invest in their military (trillions).

The excuse was that they had no secure area of operations, that mountainous terrain would reduce effectiveness, and that it was too expensive. They said the same thing of Bosnia, that it was a Vietnam waiting to happen because of its mountainous terrain, that air-support would not be effective in the Bosnian conflict. Yet when they changed their minds that turned out to completely break the back of Serb forces and alleviate pressure on civilians suffering in the siege of Sarajevo. Talk about double-standards and the fact that the RGF and militia were defeated by a small guerrilla army in the form of the RPF. Below is the Memorandum detailing inaction on Rwanda. The provision of supply by air would only benefit the men they were condemning.

Miscalculations and Embarrassment

Simply put, the U.S.A made grave miscalculations on the ability of the ‘Zero Networks’ to conduct an efficient genocide. They also embarrassed themselves both in the eyes of the extremists and their own abilities to gather and understand intelligence.

Firstly they did not seem to consider that the Hutu extremists knew more about the White House, the United Nations and their foreign policy than they did about them. The U.S, Belgium and in-particular U.N ground forces were impotent in the face of the RGF’s and Hutu Power’s gambit; that the death of U.N soldiers, particularly the strongest military units, would precipitate a withdrawal as it had done in Somalia in 1993. They targeted the Belgians, like the Somalians targeted Americans during their misguided raid on Mogadishu. They failed to assume that the sight of U.S soldiers being dragged across Mogadishu or the inactivity of U.N soldiers in Bosnia would not reach Third World T.V screens/ radios or that key Rwandan officials did not see the inherent weakness in peacekeeping operations during the 1990s.

Secondly the United States, like the French and a large sector of the international community, though stunned in the wake of the horrors of genocide were fooled again.  Rather than focusing on assisting the recovery of Rwanda itself they filled the coffers of the thousands of killers who had fled to the Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) who re-built the refugee camps into military bases. International aid workers on the ground, journalists and witnesses within camp (effectively hostages) saw the continued slaughter of Banyamulenge (ethnic Tutsis who lived in eastern Zaire) and citizens of Zaire. In effect they funded the continuation of genocide and helped kick-start a war which led to the deaths of over five million people in the 1st and 2nd Congolese civil wars instead of disarming the camps and capturing key perpetrators of genocide. Twenty years on the Democratic Republic of Congo is still as Joseph Conrad would label it our ‘Heart of Darkness’.

Even when the damage was done in Rwanda and their was clearly enough intelligence on the ground before and after the genocide of who the murderers were they were still out-witted and rendered incompetent by the killers. This reached such a level that Kagame and the RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) had to once again do the job themselves. They way in which they did it garnered much controversy especially with the killings at Kibeho.

Sheer underestimation based on underlying racist stereotypes and failing to notice the patterns on the ground were highly embarrassing for U.S foreign policy. Their conduct was particularly surprising given the topical nature of genocide in the United States. In 1993 the United States Government dedicated the ‘United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’ to the prevention of genocide and that Schindler’s List (released in November 1993), regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, received worldwide critical acclaim for its depiction of the Nazi’s genocide. There has never been a decent explanation for the indifference over Rwanda. After all they were all drowning in evidence that genocide was looming and of mass-atrocities occurring on the ground. Western governments – the US, UK, Belgium, France – continue to withhold plenty of information about events and it seems as if they have, albeit unsuccessfully, tried to sweep the issue under the carpet. 

Matthew Williams