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.