The Paris Attacks: How do we respond?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Williams

 

 

 

 

A third Lebanon War?

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

Strife

By Matthew Williams:

Hezbollah,_Baalbek,_Lebanon_(5073929381)

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

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

View original post 1,593 more words

Questions for a Military Intervention in Syria

Developing Change

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

View original post 885 more words

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 http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/syrias-forgotten-massacre-un-humanitarian-chief-horrified-douma-death-toll-set-pass-100-1515777
Douma marketplace massacre (16th August 2015) Image via http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/syrias-forgotten-massacre-un-humanitarian-chief-horrified-douma-death-toll-set-pass-100-1515777

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

The Third Lebanon War: A Matter of Inevitability?

Image via Daily Mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image via The Daily Star
Image via The Daily Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matthew Williams

[1] “A War Like No Other: Israel vs. Hezbollah in 2015,” last modified 29 January 2015, accessed September 14, 2015, http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/a-war-like-no-other-israel-vs.-hezbollah-in-2015.

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] “Israel accused over Lebanon war,” last modified September 6, 2007, accessed September 14, 2015, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6981557.stm.

Winners and Losers : The Israeli Elections (בחירות)

Image via http://blogs.rj.org/rac/files/2013/01/411472130.jpeg
Image via http://blogs.rj.org/rac/files/2013/01/411472130.jpeg

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

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

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

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

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

Netanyahu
Image via http://www.thenation.com/sites/default/files/benjamin_netanyahu_rtr_img_0.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Image via The Commentator
Image via The Commentator

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

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

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

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

Matthew Williams

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

Image via http://defence.pk/threads/iraqs-war-against-is-terrorism-updates-and-discussions.334171/page-19
Sunni protesters wave Islamic flags while others chant slogans at an anti-government rally in Fallujah, Iraq, on April 26, 2013. Image via http://defence.pk/threads/iraqs-war-against-is-terrorism-updates-and-discussions.334171/page-19

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 http://www.aljazeera.com/humanrights/2013/03/201331883513244683.html

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 http://blogs.cfr.org/zenko/2014/12/15/preventive-priorities-survey-for-2015/
Image via http://blogs.cfr.org/zenko/2014/12/15/preventive-priorities-survey-for-2015/

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

Distorted Narratives: The War of Supposed ‘Values’

isis-execution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISIS military uniform
http://data1.ibtimes.co.in/en/full/537481/militant-group-islamic-state-isis-has-released-propaganda-video-showing-syrian-soldiers-digging.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

https://prod01-cdn00.cdn.firstlook.org/wp-uploads/sites/1/2014/08/military-police-ferguson.jpg
Militarised police patrolling Ferguson, USA. https://prod01-cdn00.cdn.firstlook.org/wp-uploads/sites/1/2014/08/military-police-ferguson.jpg

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

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

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

http://pamelageller.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/jordan-pilot1.jpeg
http://pamelageller.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/jordan-pilot1.jpeg

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

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

Matthew Williams

Empire’s Fall: The Extermination of the Armenians 1915

 

Armenian Orphans

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

Adolf Hitler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pasha
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.

Massacre

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

https://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/pdf/osapg_analysis_framework.pdf

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6045182.stm

http://www.history.com/topics/armenian-genocide

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.

Burma

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.

Ferguson

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.

Crimea

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.

Libya

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

MH17

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.

Russia

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.

ASSAD T

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.

Venezula

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

Palestine

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