Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The West abandons its allies in Syria

The Daily Star
Tuesday, December 17, 2013
By Michael Glackin

The fake sign language interpreter at Nelson’s Mandela’s memorial service wasn’t the only person indulging in meaningless gestures last week. While the interpreter did what amounted to a four-hour version of the Macarena, British Prime Minister David Cameron decided to send equally confusing and worthless signals himself, on Syria.

The decision by both the United Kingdom and the United States to “suspend” assistance to a moderate Syrian rebel force, in the face of rising Islamist influence, was a bitter blow to the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army. It underscores their, and indeed the West’s, increasingly marginal role in Syria’s fate.

The FSA and SNC need Western backing to maintain a semblance of credibility and to stop fighters from joining Al-Qaeda-backed groups and other extremist Islamist groups. The West needs the moderate opposition to be effective. The nonlethal provided aid didn’t amount to much, but the symbolism of its suspension will convince everyone from President Bashar Assad to rebel fighters on the ground that an already muddled Western strategy toward Syria is in total disarray.

It also sends a clear signal to those fighting in Syria that the opposition movement that the West helped create cannot rely on the West for even token support. Recall that Cameron successfully overturned the European Union arms embargo on Syria last May in a move intended to “send a clear message to Assad,” but has failed to send as much as a pea shooter to the FSA. Small wonder the extremists, along with Iran and Russia, are in the ascendant.

The aid suspension indicates that the West believes the moderates in the Syrian opposition cannot hold the ring in Syria any longer. While the British Foreign Office insists the move is temporary, it was unable to say when the support would resume.

The events that led to the decision appear to be pretty straightforward: The takeover of Free Syrian Army bases in northern Syria, including the headquarters of the Syrian Military Council, by fighters from the Islamic Front, which recently broke with the FSA.

The Islamic Front is a union of six major Islamist rebel groups, bankrolled by Saudi Arabia. Only one of the front’s groups appears to be linked to Al-Qaeda, but all of them want to establish an Islamic state based on Shariah law.

While the rebels probably won’t miss supplies of body armor, communications equipment and U.S. armored vehicles, the symbolism of the decision is that the moderates are being sidelined, as what passes for Western strategy in Syria switches to keeping the jihadists out rather than deposing Assad.

Along with the estimated 110,000 killed during the Syrian conflict, and the 2 million refugees scattered around the region, the alarming rise and success of Islamist groups is the most startling consequence of the West’s failure to stand up to Assad. When this conflict started almost three years ago, coordinated Western support might well have toppled the Syrian president and preserved Syria’s sectarian harmony. But the West’s halfhearted support for the moderate Syrian opposition created a vacuum that the likes of the Nusra Front and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria willingly filled. Now rebels and noncombatants alike have fallen headlong into a sectarian conflict, embracing the politics of hate as a means of survival.

The British government insists, not for the first time, that the Geneva II conference – now scheduled for January 22, 2014 – will provide the blueprint to end the war and remove Assad from power. This claim would be laughable were it not for the mounting death toll in Syria

The conflict in Syria is not just a civil war. It has become a regional battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia. As much as Russia and Iran, who have backed Assad with guns and money, need to be behind any peace deal that comes out of Geneva, it is increasingly clear that Saudi Arabia, which along with Qatar bankrolls the rebels, must back it too.

Iran is already a major player in Iraq. The last thing Saudi Arabia wants is for Tehran to end up expanding its regional influence via Syria. This scenario looks increasingly likely for Riyadh, against the backdrop of an apparent thaw between the West and Iran, evidenced by last month’s tentative nuclear deal in Geneva.

The SNC’s representative in the U.K., Walid Safur, said the coalition is committed to Geneva II. He added, however, that its attendance remains conditional on a guarantee that Assad will not be a part of a transitional government that may be created by the conference. “If that changes in the coming weeks we may change our mind and not attend,” Safur told me recently.

But in reality, whether the SNC attends or not is irrelevant. As in other Middle East conflicts, a deal that does not have the backing of those wielding the guns cannot deliver peace. And as events have shown, the Islamic Front, the Nusra Front, and others are the people who count on the ground, not the SNC or the FSA.

“We’re keeping with the same consistent approach,” a Foreign Office official insisted to me last week. “We’re now focused on Geneva II where that approach will continue.”

Unfortunately, it’s a consistent approach that has so far failed to deliver either an end to the war or an end to Assad rule. While the U.K. has pursued its consistent approach, Assad has unleashed chemical weapons on his people on at least five occasions according to the United Nations; rebel fighters summarily execute people; and tens of thousands of refugees are suffering another bitter winter in makeshift tents in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

I asked the Foreign Office official how many more Syrians the British government expected to die or become homeless before its consistent approach either paid off or was abandoned. He declined to answer.

This really has become the diplomacy of the deaf.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 17, 2013, on page 7.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Too much deference for the spooks?

The Daily Star
Monday, November 18 2013
by Michael Glackin

It was billed as a historic milestone in parliamentary sovereignty and oversight when the United Kingdom’s spy chiefs appeared before a committee of British parliamentarians and peers over a week ago. However, all it revealed was that Parliament hadn’t a clue what the spooks were up to, and if the committee’s appallingly timid questioning of the spymasters was anything to go by, they never will. The Intelligence and Security Committee is the body charged with oversight of the intelligence services. The spooks were called before it following American whistleblower Edward Snowden’s claims that American and British mass surveillance programs included snooping on the emails of millions of ordinary citizens.

During the 90-minute hearing, MI5 boss Andrew Parker, MI6 chief Sir John Sawers, and Sir Iain Lobban, the director of GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, dismissed claims that their monitoring of online and telephone data was excessive, and denied long-standing allegations that British intelligence had been complicit in torture. All without a murmur of dissent from the committee tasked with scrutinizing their activities.

It is extraordinary that no one even mentioned GCHQ’s Tempora program, which allows the agency to hoover up vast amounts of data from cables carrying internet traffic in and out of the country. The information is thoroughly analyzed and then shared with GCHQ’s counterpart in the United States, the National Security Agency.

Considering that neither senior ministers nor the government’s National Security Council, which oversees intelligence coordination and is chaired by Prime Minister David Cameron, were aware of Tempora’s existence before Snowden’s leaks, one would have thought the committee would have been curious to find out more.

Someone, probably one of the three people before the committee, decided that the data trawling did not need explicit parliamentary, or it seems government, approval. Surely it would have been worth asking how that happened? At least in Washington after Snowden’s revelations, President Barack Obama and Congress acknowledged that democratic and judicial oversight had broken down.

When the committee gently asked for examples of the 34 terror plots the spymasters said they had thwarted since the July 7, 2005, bombings in London, or for examples of the damage they claimed Snowden’s leaks had caused to their operations, the spooks replied they could only provide examples in private.

Much of what intelligence agencies do cannot be allowed into the public domain. But this insistence on secrecy amid all we know from Snowden had a distinctly hollow sound to it. It highlighted the unaccountable power that GCHQ, with America’s NSA, has accumulated to invade privacy and hide its activities from democratic oversight by claiming this is necessary for national security.

Sawers, who before heading MI6 served as British ambassador to Egypt and briefly as a special envoy to Iraq in 2003, even took a laughable swipe at the newspaper reporting Snowden’s leaks: “It is clear that our adversaries are rubbing their hands with glee and Al-Qaeda is lapping it up.”

One suspects Al-Qaeda is actually lapping up how Sawers and his colleagues allowed a terror suspect under 24-hour surveillance evade his minders last week by slipping into a burka and wandering off in broad daylight through the streets of central London.

Al-Qaeda and other terror groups have already lapped up the failure to find weapons of mass destruction that British intelligence agencies insisted the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein possessed – the reason Parliament supported the Iraq invasion, which arguably has done more to unleash global terrorism than any other.

No doubt terror groups also lapped up what the government called a “serious” security breach a few years ago when an intelligence official lost top-secret documents containing the latest intelligence on Al-Qaeda. The documents were eventually found by a member of the public on a busy commuter train.

There was probably much laughter in the Tora Bora mountains when Sawers’ wife posted details about his personal life on her Facebook page, including photographs of him frolicking around in a pair of skimpy swimming trunks on his holidays. His wife had few restrictions on her Facebook account, which meant that images of the head of the U.K.’s secret service were visible worldwide.

Oddly, Sawers recently gave a rare speech in which he defended the crucial role of secrecy in keeping us all safe. And while the spooks were insisting on privacy again last week, it might have been pertinent to ask why a lowly NSA contractor such as Snowden was among more than 850,000 U.S. staff given access to GCHQ’s secret files. Did GCHQ realize how insecure and open the U.S. system was that it enabled Snowden to leak all the information so easily?

Compare the treatment of the spymasters and the British government’s failure to properly investigate Snowden’s claims with what is going on at London’s Old Bailey, the country’s highest criminal court. A group of journalists and others who worked for Rupert Murdoch’s now defunct newspaper The News of the World are on trial, accused of ordering, or conspiring in, the hacking of the telephone calls of celebrities, politicians and crime victims.

Around $40 million of British taxpayers’ money has been spent on a public inquiry and several police investigations into phone hacking by newspapers culminating in this high-profile trial. Meanwhile the amount the government has spent investigating Snowden’s allegations amounts to a few thousand pounds and some softball questions from a committee that appeared to be in awe of those it is charged with scrutinizing.

Much of what those journalists did is indefensible – the hacking of a 13-year-old murder victim’s phone among them – but which is the bigger crime or threat to civil liberties? Snowden’s revelations dwarf the phone-hacking activities of journalists. Thanks to Snowden we know that the U.S. has been systematically tapping the phones of its allies, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, with GCHQ providing a helping hand.

It has even been reported that United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s phone was hacked by the NSA ahead of a meeting Obama at the White House this year. How does this protect our security?

The defense of the spymasters for programs such as Tempora is that they only targeted those involved in terrorism and “serious crime.” The hacking of Merkel’s and Ban’s phones, among others, betrays the lie.

The committee should have shown less deference to the spooks. Their demand for less publicity, lest accountability harm British and Western security, is increasingly threadbare. These are, after all, the same people who failed to foresee the end of the Cold War, the 9/11 attacks, and the Arab Spring. They have much to account for.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Lebanese newspaper THE DAILY STAR. This article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 18, 2013, on page 7.

The popes and their love of football

The Daily Star
Friday, November 1 2013
by Michael Glackin

Pope Francis has impressed people of all creeds with his humility and modest lifestyle since becoming leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

Just as important for many though, is the fact that Pope Francis is also a well-known football fan, the sport that is akin to a global religion, one that that cuts across national and sectarian boundaries, and is played and watched by more than 800 million people, around one in eight of the global population.

Pope Francis can even claim credit for a bit of divine intervention last Sunday, when English Premiership strugglers Sunderland scored a late winner against their local rivals Newcastle United that lifted them off the bottom of the League. In case you missed it, the goal was scored in the dying minutes of the game, by a late substitute who hadn’t scored for the club this season.

A few days before the match, a beaming Pope Francis was photographed in St. Peter’s Square holding aloft a Sunderland football shirt emblazoned with “Papa Francisco” and offered to pray for the club before the big game.

Pope Francis is famously a card-carrying fan of San Lorenzo football club in his native Buenos Aires. Despite being domiciled in the Vatican Francis still pays his monthly club membership subs according to the club’s vice president, Marcelo Tinelli.

He also granted Italy’s and Argentina’s national football teams a private audience at the Vatican in August – an event one Italian newspaper headlined “Pope meets God” in a witty, or for some heretical, reference to Francis meeting Argentinian star Lionel Messi, currently the game’s top player.

But Francis isn’t the first pope to carry his love of the beautiful game into the Vatican.

Although unlikely ever to be photographed enthusiastically waving a football shirt, former Pope Benedict XVI is a supporter of current European Champions Bayern Munich. During his reign the Vatican even organized a team of Catholic priests to play a friendly game against the Palestinian national team in the Al-Khader Stadium outside Bethlehem. Palestine predictably won the match 9-1, although bizarrely the priests somehow managed to get to the end of the first half 0-0.

Pope Benedict granted audiences to a number of, mostly Italian, footballers who ensured he was photographed close to a team shirt, if never quite embracing it ala Francis.

But the papal record for audiences with football teams must surely rest with Pope John II.

He gave the Republic of Ireland football team a private audience during the World Cup in Italy in 1990 and famously revealed to Irish goalkeeper Packie Bonner that he had also played as goalkeeper when he was growing up in Poland.

A few days after meeting the pope, Ireland were knocked out of the World Cup by a single goal. Legend has it that after the match team manager Jack Charlton turned to Bonner and said: “By the way, the pope would have saved that.”

More famously, John Paul II also granted a private audience to Italian club Napoli, which in those days included the brilliant but decidedly temperamental superstar Diego Maradona.

Typically, Maradona arrived at Vatican late and things went downhill at a rate of knots after that when the Argentinian proceeded to have an argument with the pope.

In his book, “I Am The Diego,” published in 2000, Maradona wrote:

“Yes, I argued with the pope. I argued with him because I was in the Vatican and I saw all these golden ceilings and afterward I heard the pope say the church was worried about the welfare of poor kids. So? Sell the ceilings, amigo! Do something!”

In what was likely to have been a quieter Vatican audience in 2004, John Paul II also met and blessed his beloved Polish national team.

He also had a lifetime membership of Barcelona, given to him by the Spanish giants after he celebrated Mass at the Nou Camp stadium in 1982.

In 1987 German club Schalke 04 made John Paul II an honorary member, again, after celebrating Mass at Schalke’s Parkstadion in 1987. Not to be outdone, Schalke’s bitter local rivals, Borussia Dortmund, awarded him the same accolade when John Paul II granted two of their players an audience in 2005 for their work in helping to stamp out child prostitution.

John Paul II is also known as the “protector” of Brazil’s Fluminense. The club’s famous chant is the “A BĂȘnç?o, Jo?o de Deus” – “Bless us, John of God,” a tune composed in the pope’s honor during his visit to Brazil in 1980. Legend has it Fluminense fans burst into the song in 1984, during a tense penalty shootout against rivals Vasco da Gama – Fluminense won the shootout and the Brazilian championship. It would be a quarter of a century before Fluminense repeated the feat.

However, the team John Paul II really supported was Krakow based KS Cracovia. This was the team he watched as a young man, and it appears to have been a love that remained with him throughout his life – just a few months before he died he granted KS Cracovia’s team and staff a private audience, his final meeting with a football club and one of his last Vatican audiences.

Then there’s Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the controversial former Vatican secretary of state who, among other things, called on Catholics to boycott Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code.

Bertone, a lifelong Juventus fan, who used to commentate on their matches for local radio while he was Archbishop of Genoa, has long dreamed of establishing a Vatican football team.

In 2006 he famously said – not entirely in jest – that he wanted to create a team that could compete in Italy’s top flight, “with Roma, Inter Milan, Genoa and Sampdoria.”

“If we just take the Brazilian students from our Pontifical universities we could have a magnificent squad,” he said.

However, Bertone had to be content with establishing the Clericus Cup, the annual football tournament between 16 teams from church seminaries in Rome which is now in its seventh year.

The holders for the last two years have been the North American Pontifical College, so the Clericus Cup is one of the rare (association) football competitions that can be said to be dominated by North America.

Incidentally there is also a Vatican City international team, which has been managed in the past by no less a personage than former Italy and Ireland coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

Vatican City is one of eight fully recognized sovereign states that are not members of FIFA. Its players are drawn from the Swiss Guard and other Vatican staffers but the team has only played three full international matches in 11 years, one draw and two defeats to Monaco. Pope Benedict regularly visited the team when it was in training during his papacy.

But lest football fans get too excited about the papacy’s love of the beautiful game, it is probably worth mentioning that earlier this month, Pope Francis officially launched St. Peter’s Cricket Club.

Undeterred by George Bernard Shaw’s belief that the English weren’t very spiritual “so they invented cricket to give them some idea of eternity,” Francis hopes the club will forge ties with cricket teams of other faiths, particularly in the Muslim world.

But for all Francis’ global ambition for it, the cricket club’s main aspiration at the moment appears to be what amounts to a local derby match against a Church of England 11 at Lord’s next year. If if he wants to really reach the masses, Francis should stick to The People’s Game.

Michael Glackin is a former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR. This article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 01, 2013, on page 7.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The West deludes itself in Afghanistan

By Michael Glackin
Friday, October 18, 2013.
The Daily Star

Biting the hand that has sustained you for a decade is never a smart idea. So Afghan President Hamid Karzai could hardly be surprised at the criticism leveled against him after he said that NATO’s 12-year operation in Afghanistan had brought death and misery, but very little security.

In an interview with BBC Television Karzai said: “The entire NATO exercise was one that caused Afghanistan a lot of suffering and loss of life and no gains because the country is not secure.” He also accused NATO of ignoring Taliban and Al-Qaeda “sanctuaries and training grounds” in Pakistan in preference for airstrikes on Afghan villages, which he called a “violation” of sovereignty. Karzai even suggested that NATO was colluding with the Taliban to justify a continued Western military presence in the country.

Gen. Lord Richard Dannatt, the former head of the British Army, insisted the mission had not been a failure and accused Karzai of being “extraordinarily insensitive” to British soldiers, and of causing “distress” to the families of dead servicemen. The former NATO secretary-general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, echoed Dannatt’s comments, and accused Karzai of being “unfair” to the soldiers who had died while protecting his country.

Faked emotional sincerity, traditionally the preserve of actors, now also appears to be the default position for the likes of Dannatt and de Hoop Scheffer. That’s because Karzai is right. He’s taken a cheap shot of course, and his comments are also connected to still-not-entirely-resolved negotiations over the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement, which will set the terms for American forces remaining in Afghanistan after the 2014 withdrawal deadline.

But the bottom line is Afghanistan is neither safe nor stable. Criticizing someone for stating the glaringly obvious hardly seems fair. Indeed the real shock is that despite all the evidence, Dannatt and de Hoop Scheffer really believe the mission has been a success.

Civilian deaths from the ongoing violence increased almost 25 percent in the first half of this year, according to a United Nations report, while deaths and injuries to women and children jumped 38 percent.

NATO has failed to defeat the Taliban and failed to provide good governance to Afghanistan. Indeed, after next year’s elections and troop withdrawal, it looks increasingly unlikely that much of the centralized political framework established since the invasion will survive.

Dannatt and others can whinge all they want, but Karzai did not criticize the dead; indeed he spoke of the cost to the West in “blood and treasure” in a conflict that has claimed the lives of 444 British servicemen and women and has cost the Treasury, according to the former British government adviser on Afghanistan Frank Ledwidge, more than $59 billion.

Dannatt, who was approached for this article but was unavailable, was the head of the British armed forces for a large part of the war, and before that was responsible for troop deployments to Afghanistan as head of NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps. De Hoop Scheffer was head of NATO until 2009. Rather than take the moral low ground by complaining about a lack of respect for dead soldiers and their families, it might help if they opened their eyes and explained why Afghanistan today is still closer to chaos than stability.

In his book, “Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure In Iraq And Afghanistan,” Ledwidge forensically examines the army’s tactical and operational failures, exposing a raft of poor decisions by senior personnel that cost the lives of Afghans and soldiers but added nothing to defeating the enemy.

Of course, the Taliban are responsible for many more Afghan civilian deaths than NATO, and military failings are not the only reason for the West’s failure in Afghanistan, nor perhaps even the salient one. But they are a part of it, and it would have better served all those who have been killed in this conflict if Dannatt and de Hoop Scheffer had addressed Karzai’s criticism, which they avoided doing.

Indeed, Karzai has been a disaster. Putting him in charge of a country that benefited from massive Western aid was thoroughly irresponsible. But if the West thinks Karzai’s bad, who or what replaces him after next April’s presidential elections could be even worse. Along with a couple of regional warlords, the candidates include Abdul-Rasul Sayyaf, the man who invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996 and whom the U.S. 9/11 Commission Report described as a mentor to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the architect of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It is also understood that some of those convicted for the 2002 Bali bombing, in which 202 people were killed, trained at camps that Sayyaf ran in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Karzai, who appears to have suddenly discovered that previous leaders of his country have suffered for selling out to foreign interests, is belatedly engaged in talks with some Taliban leaders. He has said that he’s open to a power-sharing arrangement with them and it seems clear that the Taliban will enjoy undisturbed control of large parts of the south and east of Afghanistan.

Increasingly, the new Afghanistan that the West set out to build is starting to look worryingly like the old one. If Dannatt and others consider this to be a successful outcome to 12 years of bloodshed and the trillions of dollars spent on Operation Enduring Freedom, then the lunatics really have taken over the asylum.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star on October 18, 2013, on page 7.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Putin and Assad win by a knockout

Friday September 13, 2013
The Daily Star
By Michael Glackin

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy was summed up in his famous phrase: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” President Barack Obama’s might be summarized as, “Speak loudly and carry a small stick, then impale yourself on it.” The much talked up, talked down, on, off, missile strike against Syria was never more than a futile gesture. But few could have perceived how ineptly it would be pursued. Like a cheap firework, Obama’s and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s call to arms made a bit of a bang and fizzled out like a damp squib.

Instead of using military action to weaken Syrian President Bashar Assad, Obama and Cameron have ended up weakening themselves, and indeed their respective offices. Obama has proven himself to be more ditherer in chief than commander in chief, supporting force, but too weak to use it without first spreading the responsibility. Cameron did the same, yet neither was constitutionally obliged to do so.

There is diplomatic wrangling still to come as United Nations inspectors set about securing and dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons while the civil war rages. But make no mistake: Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin have won this round by a knockout.

On the day Assad agreed to allow his arsenal of chemical weapons to be placed under international control, his warplanes were again busy dropping nonchemical bombs on people in areas surrounding Damascus, including the neighborhood of Moadamieh, where around 100 people perished in last month’s chemical attack.

What went wrong? What about Obama’s “red line” and moral duty?

The U.S. president found himself in a corner with a military option that wasn’t worth defending when scrutinized by the American legislature. The only credible reason for intervening in Syria would be to topple Assad. Whether Obama’s intended missile attack was “limited” or bigger than “pinpricks” it was not about securing an end to Assad rule. Consequently, many in the West asked, What’s the point?

Western politicians were falling over themselves to emphasize the limitations of any U.S.-led missile attack, weeks before U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s bizarre promise on Monday that the airstrikes would be “unbelievably small.” Even Obama’s remark that the American military “doesn’t do pinpricks” on Tuesday was made in the same breath in which he announced he was delaying military action.

The red line in the Syrian conflict wasn’t Obama’s. It turned out to be Russia’s, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s. Their red line was Assad’s survival and they have stuck to it like glue. For all its talk of moral duty, the West’s commitment to this pales in comparison. When Western states did stir themselves to do something, it consisted of piecemeal, uncoordinated responses to events as they unfolded.

Like arming the rebels and “unbelievably small” missile strikes, warehousing Syria’s chemical weapons is simply the latest shroud to cover the West’s blushes because there is no will to act in Syria.

Assad, almost by accident, has tested not just the West, but specifically America’s capacity, or willingness to be a global power, and he has won. The West has blinked and retreated. It is the U.S. that is really surrendering its arms, not the Assad regime. Assad was even confident enough to publicly warn Americans of terror attacks if the U.S. dared fire a single missile at Syria.

There will be many ill-informed comparisons with Europe in the 1930s, after Obama inadvisably invoked Nazi Germany in his speech on Tuesday night. But one comparison might just be worth making: This month marks the anniversary of the Munich agreement, when along with France, the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, in an ill-fated bid to avoid taking military action against Adolph Hitler, allowed Nazi Germany to annex a large part of Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain spoke for millions when he said he would not enter into “a quarrel in a faraway country, between people of whom we know nothing.”

British and American politicians know voters are war weary from botched military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. They don’t see the Syrian civil war, or the suffering of the Syrian people at the hands of a brutal dictator, as any of their business. Diplomatic negotiations over the bodies of 100,000 Syrians, and doubtless many more as the war continues, is now all that is left, even if it has been, frankly, fruitless.

Like Europe in the late 1930s, the time when the West could have shaped an outcome favorable to its interests and those of the Syrian people has long passed. The Syrian opposition is even more divided than it was at the outset of the war. The jihadists are fast becoming the major force on the ground and will now gain in strength. And all this has bolstered Iran and Hezbollah as well, which will have serious consequences not just in the Levant, but one suspects further afield too.

It is of course hard to make a case for intervention in a war where both sides are at fault. The latest report on Syria for the United Nations Human Rights Council has said that all sides have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity. Regime forces have massacred civilians, shelled hospitals and used cluster bombs, while rebel fighters are increasingly guilty of summary executions and torture.

No one wants jihadists running Syria, but can anyone seriously support a Western policy that strengthens Hezbollah? Will the West blink again when Iran stands its ground on its nuclear ambitions?

We have truly lost our moral compass if we believe that standing on the sidelines as the bodies pile up in Syria, or having some chemical weapons decommissioned while allowing Assad to continue to kill his people with impunity, is teaching him or any other tyrant a lesson. The West may well regret not adhering to Roosevelt’s maxim.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 13, 2013, on page 7.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Cameron deserved humiliation on Syria

By Michael Glackin
Friday, August 30, 2013.
The Daily Star

By the time you read this there is a chance that a U.S. Navy warship in the Eastern Mediterranean will have unleashed cruise missiles against Syria. On the other hand, there is also a reasonable chance that no such thing will have happened. What is certain, though, is that the United Kingdom will not be playing a major role if a missile strike is aimed at Syria in the coming days. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s attempts to strut the international stage have unraveled faster than a cheap suit.

After two years of doing nothing, two years in which an estimated 100,000 people have been murdered by various nonchemical means, Cameron belatedly attempted to show some statesmanship in calling for military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. This came after what is estimated to have been the 14th chemical weapons attack in Syria’s bloody war, according to Britain’s joint intelligence committee.

But the cracks began appearing in Cameron’s war armor almost as soon as he had put it on. The prime minister’s early bellicose calls for attacking Syria were in essence a response to firm assurances that Washington was finally prepared to take immediate action against the Assad regime –a commitment that was toned down somewhat by U.S. President Barack Obama Wednesday night.

Earlier this week Cameron insisted that the United Kingdom could, and would, use its military force without support, or a mandate, from the United Nations. However, by Wednesday he had been forced to put a resolution before the U.N. Security Council to satisfy his own parliamentarians, who threatened to revolt over the issue.

Cameron also insisted that the British parliament would not have to be consulted over any potential military action. Within days of that rash statement he was forced to hastily recall parliament, which was in summer recess, to vote on the issue.

The upshot is that the parliamentarians, who returned to parliament Thursday, will now have two separate votes before military action can be taken – the second of which can only be held after United Nations weapons inspectors file their report on the chemical attack. That is at least four to five days away according to the U.N.

This means that Cameron would be unable to involve British military personnel in what would be a U.S. led military strike if, as many are forecasting, it takes place this weekend, or even next week. And it remains far from certain that parliament will support action even then.

Cameron has tried to win over the waverers by stressing how limited British involvement – in what Washington has said will be a very limited missile strike – would be. But far from winning support he has merely focused attention on how little such military action serves the United Kingdom, let alone threatens Assad rule.

In terms of national interest, the war in Syria has already destabilized three of the U.K.’s key allies in the region: Israel, Turkey and Jordan. The sectarian nature of the conflict is starting to cause wider Sunni-Shiite violence throughout the Middle East, which could disrupt the autocratic Gulf monarchies, driving up the price of global oil supplies.

But Cameron, like Obama, has waxed lyrical about the moral case for action following the chemical attacks near Damascus. The problem is that the strong moral case for intervention has been steadfastly ignored by Cameron and the Obama administration for more than two years, while the most barbaric atrocities raged across Syria.

Moreover, the limited nature of military action, which will be planned as a short, sharp, punitive strike, aimed not at toppling Assad – as Cameron and Obama have been at pains to stress this week – but simply to warn him against the further use of chemical weapons, begs the question: What good will it do?

The nature of the strike suggests that the West is happy for Assad to murder Syrians with anything else he has on hand, as long as he stays away from those chemical weapons. It also reveals that the U.K. and the U.S. lack the courage to face Assad down for fear they cannot win.

The attraction of a limited missile strike conducted from the safety of the Eastern Mediterranean is that there is little risk of Western forces being killed or captured. A national newspaper poll earlier this week revealed that 50 percent of Britons opposed attacking Syria with even long-range missiles, while only 25 percent were in favor of action.

Probable targets for the U.S. missiles are likely to include military sites linked closely to the regime, such as army command facilities, missile production sites and some air defense sites. But ironically, Syria’s store of chemical weapons is likely to remain intact, since leakage of toxic chemicals from a missile attack could kill many more people than have already died in the war’s combined chemical outrages.

At the same time limited action will likely embolden Assad and his supporters, such as Russia and Iran, who will quickly re-equip the Syrian armed forces with whatever it loses in the air strikes and declare a moral victory against the West.

The truth that dare not speak its name in all this is that at the heart of Western strategy there is a desire that the Assad regime – not Assad himself, but the institutional structures built by his father – survive this war reasonably intact to keep Syria stable and jihadist free. Having failed to act boldly at the outset of this war, the West now fears the consequences of Syria falling into the wrong hands.

Perhaps that is too cynical. But the West has looked on while barbarism has taken hold in Syria. Thousands of cruise missiles won’t change that, nor will they change the course of Syria’s ugly war. Cameron’s attempt to grab a cheap headline by riding Obama’s coattails has deservedly left him humiliated. The U.S. never needed the U.K. to attack Syria; now it will be left to France to be America’s bag carrier.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 30, 2013, on page 7.

Friday, 23 August 2013

The Egyptian generals get a free ride

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Friday August 23, 2013

The coup (let us at least here call a spade a spade) that ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi in July was quietly cheered by the West and, more loudly, by most Egyptians. But no one is cheering now.

The Egyptian army’s decision to unleash deadly force against its own people was as brutal in its intent, if not its scale, as the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad. And yet, as in Syria, the West, which sends billions of dollars to Egypt each year, looks on. The United States and the United Kingdom cannot even bring themselves to describe what has happened in a proper way, let alone take measures that could halt the violence. The semantics surrounding whether the overthrow of Egypt’s first democratically elected government in history was a military coup have reached laughable status.

Both in Washington and London officials have spent the last month squirming through linguistic hoops to avoid using the word “coup.” It has become the dreaded term that must never be uttered in polite political briefings.

The British government cannot even condemn the subsequent actions of the army, despite the bloody backdrop of the events of last week, when two Muslim Brotherhood encampments were violently cleared. Speaking on Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the bloodshed which has left at least 900 dead as “turbulence” and “very bleak.” Bizarrely, Hague added that although the United Kingdom did not approve of “military interventions in democratic processes,” the army’s ousting of Morsi was not illegal, asserting that it was, in fact, a “gray area.”

Well maybe, but what is going on at the moment in Egypt looks pretty black and white to most observers.

For sure, Mohammad Morsi’s presidency was a disaster. His calamitous handling of the economy ultimately led to the demonstrations calling for him to go. Morsi was also guilty of trampling the aspirations of the people who had forced open the floodgates that put him in power. His decision to rush through laws with only the consent of the Islamist-dominated constitutional committee revealed he and the Muslim Brotherhood were little committed to the principle of democracy.

But the problem for the Egyptian military is that its bloody assault on the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters boosted sympathy for the group. And if history teaches us anything about modern Egypt, it is that brute force will not crush the Brotherhood. Indeed as the current violence shows, it may push more people toward greater extremism.

The elections scheduled for November would have offered the Egyptian people, not the army, a chance to boot Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood out of office. It must surely be vital for people in the Middle East, and for Western interests in the region, that those voting for Islamic parties believe democracy offers them a route to government. Otherwise, elections will give credence to Al-Qaeda, which believes that only violence can bring change in the Arab world.

The U.K.’s leverage in Egypt, as in Syria, is limited. Consequently, as it has done in Syria, the British government has taken a decision to do nothing in Egypt. Despite “suspending” a handful of arms export licenses, a foreign official confirmed to me this week that the U.K. was still allowing arms to be exported to Egypt.

At a European Union foreign ministers emergency meeting in Brussels on Wednesday, member states agreed to suspend the export of some military equipment. However, that fell short of an outright ban on weapons sales and the EU only agreed to “review” its large aid budget to Egypt. The EU has currently pledged almost $6.5 billion in loans and grants for 2012-2013.

While Egypt benefits from this money and some access to EU markets, the Obama administration remains the key player, the one to which Egypt’s military listens. But once again Washington has been found wanting on the global stage. Add Egypt to the growing list of regional issues that President Barack Obama seems determined to avoid, from Syria’s brutal civil war to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Canceling a joint military exercise, Operation Bright Star, with Egypt was hardly an adequate rebuke for shooting civilians. Canceling the $1.5 billion annual aid Washington hands over to the Egyptian Army would send a clearer message, but unfortunately it is not one that the United States appears willing to send.

Egypt’s military could still receive on billions of dollars from its conservative Gulf allies, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, none of which can be described as lovers of the Muslim Brotherhood and all of which feel obliged to be proactive in the absence of U.S. leadership. The three countries recently unveiled an aid package for Egypt that totaled almost $12 billion.

Against the current backdrop of violence it is difficult to see how the army’s promise of a new constitution and fresh elections can include the Muslim Brotherhood, or indeed any Islamist parties. Yet they must be included, because that promise offers the only route toward ending the current bloodshed.

As such, it should be made it clear to Egypt that all trade, aid and exports from the U.S. and the EU will cease until elections take place and a civilian government takes office. Pressure must be applied to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to do likewise, in spite of their aversion to free elections. That requires American leadership, and to a lesser extent European and British leadership.

Are you listening Barack Obama? Because whatever words you use to describe what has happened, Egypt should not be allowed to continue as normal when civilians are being gunned down and, along with their blood, their basic human rights are being trampled into the dirt.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 23, 2013, on page 7.

Friday, 16 August 2013

For the West, talk about Syria is cheap

The Daily Star
July 30, 2013
By Michael Glackin

Do you remember Geneva II? It’s the high powered diplomatic conference on Syria that a British government official told me was “the priority” in efforts to bring about regime change in Damascus.

Perhaps you recall that the United Kingdom overturned the European Union arms embargo on Syria in a move intended to bolster the Syrian National Coalition’s negotiating power when it came face to face with regime representatives at Geneva II? The dubious logic was that if the U.K., along with France, could supply arms to the rebels, Syrian President Bashar Assad would take fright and rush to negotiate an end to the war – or “step aside” from power, to borrow U.S. President Barack Obama’s curious phrase.

Few were really convinced by the West’s rhetoric about Geneva II, and in the end it has amounted to absolutely nothing. The conference was supposed to take place in June, then it was delayed until July, and now it has fallen off the agenda completely. British government insiders concede Geneva II will not take place before September “at the very earliest” and admit it may not happen this year at all.

Why? Because after more than two years of strong words and no action from the West, Assad has finally regained the upper hand in the Syrian conflict, not just on the ground, where increased help from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah has firmly tilted the balance in his favor, but also in terms of the West’s political calculations.

Obama may now be willing to send arms to the rebels, but the limited and relatively light weaponry he intends to send – automatic weapons, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades – will not achieve the change of regime that Washington and London desired so much but were unwilling to decisively help bring about.

Meanwhile, British Prime Minister David Cameron, increasingly out of his depth, cannot even match Obama’s fruitless token assistance. A revolt within his own party against moves to arm the rebels means that Cameron couldn’t send a pea-shooter to the rebels without first holding a vote in parliament, a vote that he would certainly lose.

Most Conservative parliamentarians are against arming the rebels, either fearing it will simply increase the killing in Syria or because they believe British weapons will end up in the hands of violent Islamists. Arming the rebels is also opposed by the opposition Labour Party, which despite voting as one for the Iraq war, is now against involving the U.K. in what one parliamentarian described to me as “more Middle East adventures that can only cause us harm.”

Washington’s decision to arm the rebels with even light weaponry now puts it in a proxy war against Iran, and with it Hezbollah, which may well play into the party’s hands. Imagine if you will the reaction to footage on the Internet or on television showing Hezbollah waving U.S. weapons they have just captured from rebels?

Crucially, even the language of the conflict is changing within the British government. From confident statements about Assad’s imminent downfall, government officials now talk about the rebels “going underground” and embarking on a clandestine terror campaign in the expectation that Assad will soon resume control of most of the country.

So, from arming rebels and discussing no-fly zones, British policy now appears to rest on some kind of secret resistance that carries out an Irish Republican Army like terror campaign. No prizes for guessing who will be leading the battle there: the Nusra Front.

The West has watched a fledgling struggle for civil rights turn, first, into a fully fledged civil war, and more worryingly now, a conflict that is perilously close to cracking open sectarian fault lines throughout the Middle East, endangering the stability of the region.

Of course, there has been a complete lack of international consensus on removing Assad, but singling out Russia and China as the international bogeymen conveniently ignores the fact that neither Washington nor London was prepared to match their words with action. The debacle of post-invasion Iraq has dominated the West’s political calculations from the first day that Assad’s troops fired on unarmed civilian demonstrators.

But it isn’t just the shadow of Iraq that has hung over the West’s failure to match its lofty words with deeds. The inability of rebel forces to organize and at least bury, if not overcome, their political divisions has made them an unreliable partner.

The SNC has accused the West of betrayal, but the growing sectarian extremism of opposition forces on the ground, the ritual slaughter of those opposed to its agenda which, as the United Nations has said, is on par with the atrocities of the Assad regime, though not on the same industrially organized scale, has played into Assad’s hands.

All this has underlined the fact that a coherent political opposition never really existed until the West invented it in the shape of the SNC in 2012. And yet, Western states had the capability of influencing events in Syria at any time during the last two years, long before the death toll reached the estimated 100,000 at which it currently stands, long before Hezbollah proved to be a game-changer for Assad, and long before the entire country reached the point of no return.

A determined show of strength from the outset, a proper engagement with Russia, something akin to leadership in Washington could have prevented this tragedy. Now events on the ground appear to have passed beyond the ability of any outside player to influence the outcome.

Arming rebels? If only Western decision-makers could grow something akin to a spine when dealing with tyranny. Talk is always the cheapest form of currency in politics, but rarely has coinage been so debased than in the West’s shameful reaction to the Syrian conflict.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 30, 2013, on page 7.

An open highway for Britain’s snoops

The Daily Star
July 19, 2013
By Michael Glackin

No one should be surprised that the British Parliament’s intelligence and security committee concluded Wednesday that the country’s intelligence surveillance division, GCHQ, did not break any laws in its use of America’s Prism surveillance program, which has provided access to the content of millions of private communications. The British government has been saying the same thing for weeks, ever since Edward Snowden, a contractor who worked with the National Security Agency, exposed the shocking extent of government intrusion into our day-to-day lives.

However, the committee, which carried out a hastily arranged investigation into Snowden’s allegations, conceded it had only focused on intelligence information that GCHQ had requested from the United States on particular suspects, where a warrant had been granted, as required by British law, and signed by a minister. Small wonder then that it found no evidence of law breaking.

It did not examine the many instances in which the NSA voluntarily sent information it had gathered through Prism to GCHQ. This was a serious omission since most of the surveillance data GCHQ received via Prism was passed in this manner.

The inquiry also focused only on the content of private communications that had been intercepted, ignoring the vast amount of metadata that Prism has harvested and shared.

The committee did at least call on the government to review whether current legislation governing access to private communications “remains adequate” for the level of access GCHQ has with the Prism program. But its principal message to the snoopers was to carry on intercepting vast amounts of information, including billions of private emails and messages, without parliamentary knowledge or approval.

The legality of the blanket surveillance programs revealed by Snowden will be more thoroughly tested in separate legal actions in the United States and the United Kingdom. But whether these will shed any further light on the issue is a moot point. The British legal challenge, launched by Privacy International, will almost certainly be heard in a secret court rather than in a public hearing.

What we do know is that the conclusion of the intelligence and security committee, and the assertions from Downing Street and the White House that no laws have been broken, betrays how easily governments can corrupt the law under the guise of national security.

They get away with it because the NSA and GCHQ share their surveillance information, and there is no legal regime within the U.K. to govern this information sharing. Consequently, the government can state correctly, if disingenuously, that no law has been broken. By obtaining private information from the NSA, instead of conducting the interception and collection itself, GCHQ is neatly sidestepping the flimsy protections safeguarding individual privacy in the U.K.

At the same time, information from GCHQ’s equivalent of Prism, Tempora, which harvests millions of emails, telephone calls and Skype conversations from the undersea cables carrying Internet traffic in and out of the U.K., is shared with the NSA, enabling the U.S. agency to circumvent America’s much stronger legal safeguards.

But this mutual back scratching is only part of the complex picture. Because in reality, while there doesn’t appear to be a legal framework to govern any of this activity, there is what can be best described as a legal tool, one that provides the snoopers with all the leverage they need to do their spade work regardless of the legal niceties.

That tool in the U.S. is the foreign intelligence surveillance court, known as the FISA court, a secret body set up in 1978 to monitor federal phone tapping, but which now effectively rubber stamps the illegal snooping into the private lives of millions of Americans.

According to critics of the surveillance programs, the FISA court has consistently violated the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which entitles Americans to be secure “in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The FISA court decides, in secret judgments, what is “unreasonable” and so far has found little that is unreasonable in the NSA surveillance operations, which trawl the Internet communications and phone calls of millions of law-abiding individuals. The FISA court doesn’t provide a quasi-legal fig leaf for the illegal and unconstitutional activities of the NSA’s Prism program; it actually aids and abets the activities.

Because it operates in the shadows, we do not know if there is one recorded instance of the FISA court ever overruling an NSA request to harvest and store information on Americans. But we do know that Yahoo fought against being press ganged into allowing Prism access to its servers in a case heard before the FISA court in 2008. The FISA court overruled Yahoo’s protests and forced the company to participate in the program.

A similar toothless watchdog exists in the U.K., the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office, which was set up to scrutinize the activities of GCHQ and other agencies under the 2000 Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, or RIPA.

Despite the adage that “no one over 40 understands the Internet” the ICCO is headed by a 72-year-old retired judge and has less than 10 full-time staff members to review the interception activity of not just all British spy agencies (which employ around 10,000 people in various surveillance activities alone), but also the Metropolitan Police, the U.K.’s Revenue and Customs department, the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the Defense Ministry.

To believe that a retired septuagenarian and a handful of civil servants can adequately oversee the activities of all these agencies or provide accountability is laughable. The ICCO’s inadequacies were laid bare in The Independent newspaper this week which revealed that publication of the office’s annual report had to be delayed and revised because it failed to even mention Prism and Tempora.

Like the FISA court, the ICCO doesn’t provide meaningful scrutiny of surveillance efforts. It merely allows the intelligence agencies to get on with it, unhindered, without the knowledge or approval of the British people or elected politicians.

However governments describe all this, it seems clear that the rule of law, the cornerstone of any democracy worthy of the name, is being turned inside out to allow unwarranted intrusion into the private lives of the innocent by faceless intelligence officials and spineless ministers. Legal or not, surely this represents a betrayal of public trust, democracy and accountability.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 19, 2013, on page 7.

Britain’s snoops circumvent parliament

The Daily Star
June 18, 2013
By Michael Glackin

Somebody posted a witty tweet the other day. Responding to the revelation that the U.S. National Security Agency, which engages in signals intelligence and eavesdropping, has been busy tapping into the central servers of leading American Internet companies, someone tweeted, “Your Gmail, Google, Facebook, Skype data all in one place. The NSA just beat out like 30 start-ups to this idea.”

No doubt the NSA has the tweeter’s details and inside leg measurements on file by now. However, the pervasive invasion into our privacy that PRISM represents is no laughing matter.

PRISM is a U.S. government program which, since 2007, has been collecting audio, video, photos, emails and documents from non-Americans whose information passes through servers located in the United States. This enables America’s spooks to learn and collect a great deal of information about their foreign targets, and the servers that have been accessed belong to such major companies as Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, Skype, YouTube and Apple, as well as various telephone companies.

Google, Apple, Yahoo and Facebook have denied the NSA has “direct access” to their servers, while Microsoft said it only complies “with orders for requests about specific accounts or identifiers.”

GCHQ, the British government’s equivalent of the NSA, has had access to much of PRISM’s material since late 2010, according to a report in The Guardian. Along with The Washington Post, the paper was given details of PRISM by Edward Snowden.

There are many who say “so what?” If you are not doing anything wrong, they argue, then you have nothing to fear from the NSA or GCHQ. They are wrong. You do not have to be a paranoid privacy conspiracy theorist to see the dangers inherent in what the U.S. and the U.K. are colluding to do. The revelations come less than a month after the British government was forced to scrap a proposal to allow the security services access to the online communications and Internet browsing history of individuals – the so-called “Snoopers Charter” – following strong opposition from the government’s own parliamentarians.

Yet if Snowden’s allegations are true, and what has been published is convincing in its detail, then the British government already has its Snoopers Charter. GCHQ’s access to PRISM data allows it to circumvent both the existing legal process required to obtain personal material from Internet companies and, more worryingly, ignore the will of parliament. Powers allowing for greater surveillance of British citizens that the elected parliament has authorized are already being used by government agencies through a backdoor deal with the NSA.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted last week that the claims GCHQ used data from PRISM to circumvent British law were “baseless.” But The Guardian reported that in the year leading up to May 2012, the first full year the U.K. had access to PRISM data, GCHQ was able to generate 197 intelligence reports for the British security services. This was more than double the number generated in the previous year when the U.K. first gained access to the program.

I lived in Eastern Germany not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The powers used by the NSA bear a chilling resemblance to the way former East Germans recounted how their lives were devastated by the Stasi’s intrusions into their privacy, intercepting their mail, listening to their calls, getting gossip from their neighbors. How the Stasi would have loved to be doing their job in the Internet age.

And where does all this end? How long before governments decide that it’s not just terror or criminal behavior they are interested in?

The U.K. Anti-Terrorism Act, introduced by Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government in 2001, is a case in point. This act was hurriedly passed into law immediately after the 9/11 attacks. Even against that backdrop, it was still labeled by one critic as “the most draconian legislation parliament has passed in peacetime in over a century,” particularly since many of its measures, despite the act’s official title, were not specifically related to terrorism.

This legislation was most famously used not to fight terror, but to fight an ally. At the height of the global banking crisis in 2008, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown used the act to freeze all Icelandic assets in the U.K., after Reykjavik failed to guarantee British deposits held by Icelandic banks. The move effectively put Iceland on par with states that sponsored terrorism, and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. It was a disgraceful use of the legislation against a nation that was not only a member of NATO, but also had troops serving in Afghanistan in the Icelandic Crisis Response Unit.

The 2001 act also allowed communication service providers to retain some data, though not content, so this could be accessed by security services investigating criminal and terrorist activity. What is clear is that when governments can already bend existing law to an extent that was never anticipated by citizens, you have to wonder why they even bother with parliament at all.

While often the British Parliament is merely a rubber stamp for the executive arm of government, occasionally it can rise to the occasion, as it has by rejecting the Snoopers Charter. Sadly, the opposition Labor Party, which preaches liberty but practices control, is set to back the government, enabling it to reintroduce the Snoopers Charter. Labor insists it is a “vital tool” in combating terrorism.

Of course there are terrorists and others from whom the U.K. needs to be protected. But we must also ensure that by protecting our way of life we do not trample over the civil liberties that underpin the way of life we are trying to protect. The hard-earned rights and liberties of people pursuing their daily affairs must be safeguarded too.

The great statesman of revolutionary America, Benjamin Franklin, put it well when he said: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Or to put it another way, there are none so dangerous to democracy as those who seek to protect it from its own virtues.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 18, 2013, on page 7.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The U.K. leads on Bashar Assad’s exit

The Daily Star
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
By Michael Glackin

And so to Geneva. Two years and an estimated 70,000-80,000 civilian deaths later, the United States and Russia are poised to bring representatives of President Bashar Assad’s regime together with his opponents in the Syrian National Coalition, or SNC, over the negotiating table. Ironically, they will meet in a city whose name is forever linked with protecting civilians caught up in war zones.

There is still no firm date for the conference, dubbed “Geneva II,” and at the time of writing no firm guarantee that the SNC will attend. The Syrian opposition groups are busy arguing over whether they should negotiate with the Assad regime, and whether they should even participate while Hezbollah has fighters in Syria aiding Assad.

Meanwhile, a United Nations report released this week reminded us again of the human cost of this bloody conflict. It revealed harrowing details of Syrian children being taken hostage, forced to watch torture, and even participate in beheadings. The report accused both sides of abuses but insisted that rebel actions did not “reach the intensity and scale” of abuses committed by pro-government forces.

Geneva II coincides with the United Kingdom and France’s success last month in forcing the European Union to abandon its arms embargo on Syria. Both events are linked, and are taking place at a time when Assad is increasingly emboldened and when the West is fast running out of ideas to bring about his downfall, amid a worsening refugee crisis in Lebanon and Jordan and threats by the Free Syrian Army to take their war into Lebanon against Hezbollah.

A Foreign Office official told me that Geneva II is now “the priority” in the British government’s efforts to push for regime change in Syria. Lifting the EU arms embargo is intended to increase the Syrian opposition’s leverage ahead of the conference. The theory is that by floating the prospect that France and the U.K. could supply arms to the rebels, Assad will be more willing to negotiate an end to the war and presumably negotiate himself out of a job at the same time.

But it is far from certain that this will be the outcome. First, Assad, like everyone else, is aware that the idea of arming the rebels is an Anglo-French project. There is no support for such action in the rest of the European Union, or indeed Barack Obama’s White House. It is worth pointing out that 25 out of 27 EU governments opposed the lifting of the arms embargo. Last month’s vote simply meant that the U.K. and France are now free to send arms if they wish, since the embargo needed unanimity among all 27 governments to continue.

The U.K. and France have been free to send arms since May 31, but British Foreign Secretary William Hague still insists that lifting the embargo does not necessarily mean the U.K. will supply the rebels with weaponry. In the parlance of modern politics, the decision is a “game changer,” but only if France and the U.K. actually ship arms, and at the moment there is little sign of the U.K. doing that.

Second, any move to arm rebels at this late stage will simply prompt Russia to step up its supplies to Assad’s forces, matching or exceeding any weapons sent to the rebels. Russia’s efforts will likely see the arrival in Syria of sophisticated S-300 surface-to-air missiles. Iran will also increase its support for the Assad regime. With this in mind, the French and British effort to arm the rebels at this stage looks like a belated, tawdry and futile attempt to be seen as doing something, after spending two years watching Syria’s suffering from the sidelines.

At the same time, so far Geneva II has only served to underline the increasing fragmentation of an already hapless Syrian opposition, which is now more divided than it was at the first Geneva conference last year.

Indeed, the Foreign Office informed me that there is “a lot of work going on behind the scenes” spearheaded by the U.K.’s envoy to the opposition John Wilkes, who must ensure the opposition is in as “good a shape as possible” for the conference, whatever that means.

But attempts by London to build up the capability of the opposition, to unify it and help it rise to the task of governing Syria have so far been a disaster. Which is why the British desire to end the arms embargo and place so much hope in Geneva II has a rather desperate feel about it. In the absence of a coherent strategy toward the Assad regime, the West has allowed itself to sleepwalk into a situation where it is now suddenly betting on long shots to topple Syria’s president.

If, and it’s still a big if, the U.K. does send weapons, Hague insists it would ensure that the arms go to so-called moderate rebels, and not extremists such as the Nusra Front. But how exactly will France and the U.K. vet those to whom they sell arms?

Much of the fighting on the ground is being led by Nusra. It is inconceivable that rebel groups, given arms by the U.K. or France, would not send them on to Nusra if they were in need of them to achieve a critical victory. This is war after all, and an ugly one at that, not a game of cricket.

Moreover, less than a year ago, in an interview with Ash-Sharq al-Awsat, Wilkes insisted the U.K. would not provide funding to groups inside Syria because the government could not be certain of where the money would end up. If the government couldn’t verify where money was going eight months ago, how on earth will it verify where arms are going to today? What has changed?

Unfortunately when I asked the Foreign Office official how they would vet the rebels and differentiate good rebels from bad rebels when sending arms, the official declined to answer what she insisted was “a hypothetical question.” Hypothetical? Small wonder that Assad is feeling more confident the longer the Syrian conflict goes on.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on June 11, 2013, on page 7.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

On the Palestine tragedy, America ignored Margaret Thatcher

Saturday, April 13, 2013.
The Daily Star
By Michael Glackin

At the height of Lebanon’s Civil War during the early 1980s, British troops, serving with the Multi-National Force in the country, found themselves being shelled by Druze militiamen operating from the surrounding mountains. On hearing the news, during a lunch with her soon to be installed Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered Heseltine to telephone Walid Jumblatt immediately and tell him that she wanted the shelling to stop. Needless to say the shelling stopped.

Such was the appeal of the Iron Lady, or Iron Man as the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat once called her. In terms of the Middle East, Thatcher is principally remembered for urging U.S. President George H. W. Bush not to go “wobbly” in the buildup to the first Gulf War, and her ill-fated attempts to strengthen what she saw as moderate Arab and Israeli factions and politicians in a bid to solve what she called the issue of “abiding importance” in the Middle East.

But it is almost forgotten now that Thatcher, despite her fierce opposition to organizations she deemed to be involved in terrorism, was also responsible for opening up talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1980s.

For most of her premiership she refused formal governmental talks with the PLO over its refusal to recognize Israel and renounce terrorism. But as far back as 1982 she allowed Douglas Hurd, then a junior Foreign Office minister, to meet Farouq Qaddoumi, a senior PLO figure in Tunis. It was the first encounter of its kind, and those discussions later led to formal talks, paving the way for meetings between Arafat and the Reagan White House later in the decade.

In the event this, and more public attempts to forge agreements between moderates on both sides of the Arab-Israeli divide, amounted to nothing in the crucible of Middle East politics.

But Thatcher at least attempted to pursue an independent strategy in the region, one aimed at overturning the status quo, rather than slavishly following U.S. policy as her successors had done. Despite her close relationship with President Ronald Reagan she was deeply critical of his intervention in Lebanon and had warned him against retaliatory action in the wake of the suicide truck-bomb attack which killed 242 American troops in Beirut.

Despite her support for Israel she cared little for Likud prime ministers Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. Part of her antipathy toward Begin stemmed from his role in the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem during the final years of Britain’s mandate in Palestine in 1946, killing 91 British soldiers. She famously described him as a man who “could kill the whole [peace] process.”

She also continued the policies of previous British governments and refused major arms sales to Israel. This policy in particular annoyed Begin. He wrote to Thatcher demanding to know how Britain could refuse Israel defense equipment when it was happily selling sophisticated arms to Middle Eastern states.

Thatcher ignored the letter, refusing even to allow the Foreign Office to send a formal reply.

Her relationship with Begin cooled further with the outbreak of the Falklands War in April 1982 and Israel’s invasion of Lebanon two months later. Israel was selling arms to Argentina, but Thatcher’s wrath was reserved for Israel’s attack on Lebanon, which she considered a carbon copy of Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands.

Her government introduced a fresh arms embargo on Israel and rescinded an invitation to attend a British Army Equipment Exhibition.

For his part, Begin accused Thatcher of hypocrisy, insisting Israel was simply doing what the United Kingdom was doing in the Falklands, namely defending its citizens.

Thatcher consistently warned that Israel could not gain security by expanding its borders – something then Defense Minister Ariel Sharon later agreed with. She believed instead that embracing the principal of “land for peace” was Israel’s best option, remarking that Palestinians should be “restored in their land and dignity.”

That said, she had a number of reservations about the practicality of an independent Palestinian state. She doubted it would be truly independent and would likely fall under the influence of Syria or factions such as Fatah. Her preference was for Palestinian self-determination as part of a federation with Jordan, a plan that at the time had the support of both King Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, with whom she enjoyed good working relationships.

Thatcher had visited Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan and Syria, along with her husband Dennis, and both were appalled by the conditions. She once remarked that she wished Israeli appreciation of the human rights of Soviet refuseniks was matched by appreciation of the plight of landless and stateless Palestinians.

At the same time, she made the point that the PLO, which effectively ran the Palestinian refugee camps, had a vested interest in maintaining their Spartan conditions, since the ensuing discontent meant the camps could remain a permanent recruiting ground for what Thatcher called the PLO’s “revolutionary struggle.”

It was during her last days in office that she famously urged Bush to drive Saddam Hussein’s invading Iraqi army out of Kuwait, when he appeared to be wavering. As she pointed out in her memoirs, the desire for swift action against Iraq stemmed in part from her experience in the Falklands, but primarily from a desire to protect Saudi Arabia and its oil from a similar fate. Thatcher reasoned that if the Iraqis crossed the border into the kingdom, their troops could annex the Gulf “in a matter of days,” giving Saddam Hussein control of 65 percent of the world’s oil reserves, from which he “could blackmail us all.”

Ultimately Thatcher failed to have a meaningful, long-term impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict or indeed the wider Middle East. While to the wider world she restored Britain’s global presence and pride, the leverage to end the Palestinian tragedy rested entirely with the U.S. While Walid Jumblatt may have heeded Thatcher, Washington did not.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 13, 2013, on page 7

Monday, 8 April 2013

Syria’s opposition blames the West for extremism in its ranks

The Daily Star
Friday, March 29, 2013
By Michael Glackin

Talk of the opposition Syrian National Coalition being thrown into disarray by the recent resignation of its president, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, is wide of the mark. The coalition exists in a state off perpetual disarray and division; Khatib’s resignation merely put the chaos in plain view.

Headless chickens have more direction than the National Coalition, and have infinitely more certainty about their fate. Two years on from the start of the uprising against the rule of President Bashar Assad there is still no certainty about how or when Syria’s bloody conflict will end, or what will happen to heal Syria and its long suffering people when it does.

Just to add to the general disarray, the National Coalition’s general assembly announced it would not accept Khatib’s resignation and he remains in place as “caretaker president.” A National Coalition insider said the coalition is due to hold talks with Khatib and indicated he may even withdraw his resignation in the coming days.

Nonetheless, from the perspective of the West, a few things have become clearer. The extremist Islamist tendency is clearly on the rise within the Syrian opposition, and according to Khatib and his supporters the blame for that must be laid at the door of the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union for what he perceives as their failure to offer moderates within the National Coalition meaningful support.

Yet despite this, and Ghassan Hitto’s “election” as interim prime minister, British and Western policy toward the National Coalition will not soon change. Lukewarm support will continue. Syria’s rebels will not be armed by the West. And many more innocent Syrians will die.

The Arab League may well have taken down the Syrian national flag and hoisted the opposition’s colors to the mast, but that doesn’t amount to much if you are one of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, or if you are caught in the grip of the relentless killing across Syria.

As for Khatib, he was on borrowed time after he offered talks between the National Coalition and the Syrian government. Despite halfhearted pledges of support for this policy in public, senior opposition figures, many of whom have ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, were furious. The sudden elevation of Hitto, a virtually unknown information technology executive who joined the opposition last year after living in the U.S. for 30 years, was clearly intended to undermine Khatib.

Until last week the National Coalition had steadfastly avoided appointing an interim prime minister for fear of exacerbating divisions within the coalition and between its supporters in both the Gulf and the West. But insiders said Khatib’s increasingly “go it alone” policy, primarily his offer to talk to the Assad regime, which took place without consultation with other National Coalition officials, prompted his opponents to act.

It’s also not a coincidence that one of Hitto’s first pronouncements was to firmly rule out any talks with the Assad regime. Hitto is widely seen as a mouthpiece for the Muslim Brotherhood and his election was reportedly pushed by Qatar and Turkey, who are increasing their influence in the National Coalition as the Syrian civil war drags on.

But the National Coalition’s representative in the U.K., Walid Safur, insists that the talk of extremists and the Muslim Brotherhood taking control of the opposition is inaccurate. Speaking to me Wednesday, he said: “We’re a democratic movement, one that allows freedom of expression, unlike the Assad regime which kills those with opposing views. There are differences, but we are united on the major issue, which is to free Syria from the murderous regime of Bashar Assad.”

That said, Safur acknowledged the sharp rise in the number of extremist Islamist groups within the opposition’s ranks on the ground. He said: “The spread of elements such as the extremists has happened because the West has taken an ethical decision not to help the Syrian people overthrow Assad. Those elements are helping the Syrian people, if the West wants to prevent this it needs to step in and do more to help.”

But in a classic “Catch 22,” help is not forthcoming because the mistrust and disunity within Syria’s opposition, and the nature of many if the armed factions inside Syria, such as the extremist Nusra Front, have left the West reluctant to intervene more resolutely.

Consequently, despite the U.K.’s much publicized attempts to lift the European Union ban on arming the rebels, the Foreign Office insisted this week that it has not called for the opposition to be armed. An official explained the policy to me in detail. He said: “We haven’t taken a position on arming the opposition. The ability to send arms to the rebels and actually sending arms are not the same thing. If we have the ability to send arms it sends a clear message to Assad, but we haven’t made a decision about actually sending arms.”

Well, one can only hope such a policy is clear to Assad because it’s probably as clear as mud to most other people. But it reflects that the British government is aware that extremist groups are gaining more influence within the opposition and finding room to operate in Syria.

The Foreign Office official told me, “This is why we continue to support moderate opposition to boost their appeal and effectiveness over extremists. There remains a need to build up moderate opposition on the ground to counter extremist influence.”

Yet the events of the last week underline that despite creating the National Coalition to serve its own purposes, the West has, until now, lost the battle to bolster moderate elements within the opposition, and so far appears to be strengthening the extremists instead. Even headless chickens can survive long enough to hatch bad eggs.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Blair, still the unrepentant preacher

The Daily Star
Friday, March 8 2013
By Michael Glackin

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair has given up trying to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq or persuade people that “it was the right decision.” His weariness is understandable. Blair has changed the reasons for supporting America’s decision to invade so many times, he has probably lost track of what it is he is justifying.

Yet Blair also remains unrepentant and is still preaching. Speaking on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the invasion, Blair admitted that life in Iraq, where sectarian killings continue, was not what he had hoped it would be following the downfall and execution of Saddam Hussein. Yet despite this he insisted the situation for Iraqis would have been terrible had the dictator remained in power, adding that Saddam was “20 times worse” than Syrian President Bashar Assad.

It’s easy to knock Blair. His vanity, his messianic belief in himself and his judgments, his clear deceit in going to war on intelligence he surely realized was flawed. A year before the invasion, he wrote to his chief of staff Jonathan Powell: “the immediate [weapons of mass destruction] problems don’t seem obviously worse than three years ago. So we have to reorder our story and message. Increasingly, I think it should be about the nature of the regime.”

In short Blair wanted a war. And he wanted it because he believed there was a moral case for it. It had nothing to do with WMD and he never cared about gaining United Nations support. In that same memo Blair wrote: “A political philosophy that does care about other nations – e.g. Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and is proud to change regimes on the merits, should be gung-ho on Saddam.”

The crude language displays a distastefully cavalier attitude to the hundreds of thousands of lives that would be lost on Blair’s desire for a “gung-ho” approach to Saddam. But playing devil’s advocate, one could say that his decision-making in the runup to the Iraqi invasion was informed by both the failures and successes of the international community in dealing with what were considered to be “rogue states.”

Wind the clock even further back to 1994 and Rwanda. The United Nations had boots on the ground. It had, by all accounts, been warned in advance that a genocide against the country’s Tutsis was imminent. Yet the U.N. Security Council did nothing. More than half a million men, women and children were massacred, including 2,000 refugees who had taken refuge in the Don Bosco School in the Rwandan capital of Kigali under the protection of Belgian U.N. peacekeepers. The peacekeepers were ordered by the U.N. to abandon the school, leaving it to Hutu militants waiting outside its gates, drinking beer. Once the Belgians left, the militants entered and massacred almost everyone.

The lesson Blair drew from Rwanda was that the U.N. is incapable of preventing human tragedies. Its membership, as we can see today over Syria, cannot speak with one voice and so shrinks from decisive action when it is most needed.

NATO’s belated attack on Serbia over Kosovo in 1999, generally seen as establishing the template for Blair’s “humanitarian interventionism,” stemmed in large part from global guilt over the U.N.’s failure to intervene in Rwanda as much as from disgust with the carnage in the former Yugoslavia and the Western hand-wringing that accompanied the conflict throughout the 1990s.

Blair persuaded then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, who had regretted his own failure to act in Rwanda, to join him. This “humanitarian intervention” was based on a simple premise: If the U.N. does not act to prevent, in Blair’s words during his famous Chicago speech in April 1999, ”a humanitarian crisis or gross oppression of a civilian population,” then individual states might do so themselves.

It was in essence a rebranding of Clinton’s earlier calls for “a coalition of the willing” when the U.S. president sought international support for possible action against North Korea in 1994.

The successful British intervention in Sierra Leone in 2000 stretched the premise further. Acting unilaterally, the troops rescued a failing U.N. operation that was on the point of losing control to the vicious militias, “gangsters” as Blair described them, who had taken hundreds of peacekeepers hostage and were poised to oust the country’s elected government. It was an overwhelming success and Blair has since said that it was one of the things of which he is most proud.

Then came the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. I covered the government’s party conference in 2001, weeks after the attack and listened as Blair gave a speech outlining a world of “humanitarian intervention.” I left the conference thinking he might invade Zimbabwe – which he dearly wished to, North Korea, and probably China too, never mind Afghanistan or Iraq.

But while we ignore the international backdrop to the Iraq invasion at our own peril, none of this excuses what became one of the greatest military follies of modern history. Ten years on Iraq is a long way from being a functioning democracy. In the last week alone dozens of Iraqis have been killed in outbursts of the sectarian violence unleashed by the invasion. The Middle East is more volatile today. The invasion radically altered the region’s balance of power, to the advantage of Iran – a greater threat to the West than Saddam ever was.

The war in Iraq crushed British and more importantly American self-confidence, decidedly curbing Washington’s willingness to become involved in far-flung conflicts. Because of the conflict, the West remains firmly on the sidelines in Syria, effectively acquiescing in the continuing slaughter, just as it did in Kosovo until 1999.

Iraq exposed the limits of Blair’s doctrine. Sierra Leone, Kosovo and other smaller interventions failed to provide a consensual template for “humanitarian intervention.” All they did was give Blair dangerous over-confidence in his instincts and beliefs. The former British prime minister should now acknowledge these facts and take responsibility for them. Sadly, he refuses to do so. Unlike Pope Benedict XVI, Blair really does think he’s infallible.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper THE DAILY STAR.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Khatib wows the West, but not his allies

The Daily Star
Friday, February 15 2013
By Michael Glackin

It would be an overstatement to describe it as appeasement. But National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces leader Moaz al-Khatib’s hastily arranged meeting with Russia and Iran in, of all places, Munich, and his sudden volte face about talking with serving members of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad has uncomfortable parallels.

Seventy-five years ago, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain traveled to Munich for talks with Adolf Hitler to avert a European war. Chamberlain, whose policy was to work with the dictator and appease his grievances, left the city convinced he had secured “peace in our time.” A year later Europe, and the rest of the world, was engulfed in the bloodiest war in its history, a war that also had far reaching consequences for the Middle East.

Whether Khatib’s meeting with Sergei Lavrov and Ali Akbar Salehi, the foreign ministers of Russia and Iran respectively, and his offer to hold talks with Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa will, as Khatib’s critics insist, embolden Syrian President Bashar Assad, as Chamberlain’s meeting emboldened Hitler, is a moot point. But by the time Khatib had left Munich it was clear his diplomacy had revealed further cracks in the coalition.

The coalition was established, at Western urging, to envelop the Syrian National Council, a grouping effectively dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood but that had also become divided and increasingly marginalized as Syria descended into civil war. The SNC failed to attract cash or support from minorities and rebels at the sharp end of the conflict who saw it as being under Turkey’s influence.

The coalition is more inclusive than the SNC, although it is worth pointing out that it doesn’t include all of Syria’s minorities, most notably Syria’s Kurdish parties. But it was founded on the categorical rejection of any talks with the Assad regime. This was an insistence of those opposed to forming the coalition, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and other militant Islamists, who feared the West was attempting to curb their power and influence and steer the opposition into talks with the regime.

While George Sabra, the coalition’s deputy leader and Syrian National Council president, has backtracked on his initial criticism of Khatib – cries of “stabbing rebels in the back” have died down – and tacitly backed the move, it is clear that many coalition members have deep misgivings about Khatib’s diplomatic efforts, not least because his offer to talk to the regime comes unnervingly hard on the heels of Assad’s own absurd invitation to his opponents to return to Damascus for talks, a move clearly aimed at dividing the opposition.

Indeed, sources within the coalition insist that the reason former Prime Minister Riad Hijab, who defected and joined the opposition last year, hasn’t been appointed prime minister in waiting is because many in the opposition, not just the Muslim Brotherhood, refuse to deal with anyone who has served in the Assad regime.

With that in mind, it’s unlikely that the opposition will agree with one voice to opening a dialogue with someone as senior as Sharaa, who is at the very least supporting the regime’s bloody campaign.

An emergency meeting of the coalition is scheduled to take place to discuss Khatib’s diplomacy – his offer of talks and trip to Munich were entirely his own initiatives – which should clarify the situation either way. But it’s important to note that Khatib’s “go it alone” diplomacy is an honest attempt to break the diplomatic log jam that for over two years has left an estimated 60,000 Syrians dead and tens of thousands more as refugees in neighboring countries. It is a recognition that as the war approaches its second anniversary with no end in sight, the opposition has been powerless to achieve its goals, and the longer it goes on, the greater the risk of further divisions within the opposition and regional overspill.

For the opposition to remain relevant it must deliver something. In the absence of decisive action by the West or agreement with Russia, which has blocked three United Nations Resolutions aimed at ending the war or forcing Assad to stand down, Khatib has few options.

Whatever the discontent with coalition, the West feels it can do business with Khatib, and the rebels on the ground appear to respect him more than many other elements in the opposition, who are seen as “hotel warriors.”

Khatib insists talks are conditional on the regime releasing 160,000 detainees and issuing passports for thousands of Syrians who have fled to neighboring countries. But by his actions he has adopted the so-called Geneva Plan put forward by the U.N. and supported by Russia and the West, that allows Assad to remain in power while talks take place.

A British Foreign Office official firmly backed Khatib’s move. She said: “Mr. Al-Khatib has the full support of the U.K., U.S. and France on his conditional offer to negotiate with the Assad regime. We cannot shift Assad, but Russia can. It goes without saying that Khatib would want to take his argument to the Russians, the Chinese and eventually the Iranians. They hold the key to Assad’s response to the offer.”

It all makes sense to the West then. But that doesn’t mean it makes sense to everyone in the opposition, particularly those who believe the West isn’t doing enough to aid the rebels. Western support is strictly limited and likely to remain so. Although the U.K. has called for a review of the European Union arms embargo on Syria, which expires on March 1, a ban on arming the rebels is likely to remain.

U.S. President Barack Obama has steadfastly refused to put guns in the hands of rebels, overruling advice from former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, as well as former CIA chief and Afghan war commander David Petraeus. There is a chance that now that Obama has been safely re-elected, he may relent, but the smart money says the risk of U.S.-supplied weapons ending up in the hands of rebel forces linked to Al-Qaeda will ensure the current policy remains in place.

But opposition insiders insist the coalition’s increasing unhappiness with Western support isn’t simply about arms. Last week one told me: “The coalition hasn’t enough money to operate the government due to hesitation of the international community and the Friends of Syria.”

He added: “The Syrian people and the opposition are losing hope with the West, and the friends of Syria, who offered very little. The world watches the regime’s carnage and just issues instructions and warnings, spreading cold views to people in the worst conditions.”

The West created the coalition to have a political entity that it could work with and fill the void when Assad is finally toppled. But the fact remains that the coalition has failed to present a united front and offer a convincing blueprint for Syria’s transition to democracy. This past week offered a reminder that it is difficult to see the coalition heading a popularly backed transitional government or maintaining control of myriad armed groups in a war-torn country. Khatib appears to be making the coalition’s policy on a personal or ad-hoc basis because he cannot reach agreement to pursue them otherwise.

No one can accuse Khatib of failing to pursue every available opportunity to end this bloody war. But he may yet find that his trip to Munich offers as little comfort in the long term as Chamberlain’s visit to the same city did 75 years ago, if all he achieves is to divide the opposition and encourage Assad to continue a bloody war.

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR.