Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Britain’s murky role in CIA torture

The Daily Star
Tuesday, December 30 2014
By Michael Glackin

Not long ago, in a bid to find out how effective the CIA really was at counterterrorism, U.S. President Barack Obama released a rabbit into a forest and challenged the agency to find it. The CIA spent months planting informers in the forest, interviewing forest creatures, and examining all the forest intelligence. Nothing. Finally the agency went into the forest and dragged out a soaking wet, badly beaten brown bear screaming: “Okay, okay! I’m a rabbit, I’m a rabbit!”

Funny as this old joke is, it’s not nearly as funny as the news that the British body charged with investigating the U.K.’s complicity in the CIA’s torture of terrorism suspects between 2001 and 2009 was none other than Parliament’s hapless Intelligence and Security Committee.

One of the many merits of the U.S. political system is that all branches and agencies of its government are held accountable by what is sometimes tenacious oversight by elected politicians. The Senate’s Intelligence Committee recently released a report on torture conducted by the CIA in the so-called war on terror. Its work hasn’t been perfect, but at least Americans now know the truth about the CIA’s torture program, and, it appears, the complicity of the administration of former President George W. Bush.

However, we in the U.K. still do not know the extent of our government’s role in this sordid affair. And, if it is left to the feeble ISC to investigate, we never will.

For years, the British government denied that its territory had been used for so-called “rendition” flights, in which terror suspects were illegally transported across the globe by the CIA to countries where they could be tortured. It also denied that British intelligence agencies had any involvement or knowledge of the CIA’s brutal program. The denials were supported by an ISC investigation in 2007 that gave the intelligence agencies and government a clean bill of health. The ISC reiterated its findings in 2010.

Yet a steady drip of leaks and court actions has long contradicted both the government’s lofty denials and the ISC’s findings. For example, for more than a year now, police in Scotland have been investigating whether Scottish airports were used in rendition flights. This probe followed publication of research compiled by the Rendition Project, an academic program that has spent over four years tracking CIA rendition flights and found that 50 aircraft linked to renditions landed in Scotland between September 2001 and September 2006.

But the U.K.’s involvement goes beyond providing a stopover for CIA torture flights. The U.K.’s legal authority, the Crown Prosecution Service, told me that on Dec. 16, London’s Metropolitan Police had handed over a file of evidence, the result of a three-year investigation titled Operation Lydd, into MI6 involvement in the kidnapping of Libyan activists in 2004.

Police working on Operation Lydd even questioned Jack Straw, the former British foreign secretary, as a “witness” to the alleged abductions of two Libyans who claim they were handed over to Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s regime and tortured. This occurred at a time when the U.K. was trying to curry favor with the dictator.

The CPS told me it was “now in a position to begin considering the material with a view to making a charging decision in due course.”

It is worth pointing out that two years ago, despite government denials and the ISC’s findings, the government paid $3.5 million to one of the Libyan activists, Sami al-Saadi, and his family. This ended a longrunning legal action in which he claimed Straw had authorized his kidnapping in a joint U.K.-U.S.-Libyan operation.

At the time, however, the Foreign Office insisted that the payment was not “an admission of liability.”

The government has also spent more than $600,000 of taxpayers’ money trying to quash another case, brought by a Gadhafi opponent, Abdul Hakim Belhadj. Belhadj, whose pregnant wife was kidnapped with him, is understood to have turned down a $1.6 million settlement because it did not include an acceptance of guilt by the U.K.

There is also the case of former Guantanamo Bay inmate Binyam Mohammed, who in 2011 received $1.6 million from the government in yet another out-of-court settlement. This came after he claimed he was tortured with the complicity of British intelligence agencies while illegally held in Pakistan, Morocco, and Afghanistan.

We also know that U.K. intelligence agencies supplied information to the CIA’s torturers and were present at some of the torture sites. This last point has been substantiated by Lord West, a former Home Office minister and by Dr. James Mitchell, the man who devised and ran the CIA torture program.

The Senate report insists the CIA program was ineffective in gaining information, but many will argue that the West cannot seek to occupy the moral high ground when its enemies film gruesome beheadings of their captives or throw them off high buildings.

But it is the constant denials and barefaced lies of successive government officials that needs to be investigated, and with it the utter failure of the ISC to actually uncover any wrongdoing, or re-examine any of its failings amid police investigations, a plethora of court actions and multimillion-pound taxpayer-funded payoffs.

An earlier inquiry into the torture allegations, launched four years ago and led by a former judge Sir Peter Gibson, questioned whether the U.K. had “a deliberate or agreed policy” to ignore the mistreatment of suspects. It sought to determine whether MI5 and MI6 operated a policy that would “condone, encourage or take advantage of rendition operations” carried out by other countries.

The government promptly scrapped this inquiry before it was finished and asked the ISC to complete it. That was a year and a half ago and the ISC still hasn’t published its findings. Now the government has added the report on CIA torture to the ISC’s workload. You could be forgiven for thinking the British government isn’t keen for the truth to emerge. And that really isn’t funny at all.

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 30, 2014, on page 7.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

The Daily Star
Tuesday, December 2 2014
By Michael Glackin

Anyone seeking evidence of how far the United Kingdom has descended from a nation renowned for unblinking fortitude in the face of adversity to one now gripped by collective neurosis and hysteria, need look no further than two bizarre events that took place last week.

First, police started handing out leaflets at railway stations informing commuters that in the event of an Islamist terror attack they should “Run, Hide, and Tell.” If that message wasn’t clear enough, the leaflets also contained images of terrified commuters running down stairs, cowering in darkened corners, and then anxiously calling someone on a mobile phone.

It’s a long way from Winston’s Churchill’s inspirational call to arms in 1940 when Britain stood alone against Nazi Germany: “We shall fight on the beaches ... in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

From Churchillian defiance to “run, hide, and phone a friend.” Lord help us. You could be forgiven for thinking that the U.K. was already occupied by ISIS. Small wonder that the nation’s commuters lambasted the police for scaremongering and wasting taxpayers money.

If that wasn’t enough, we then had the astonishing verdict of a parliamentary inquiry that found an American social media website responsible for the brutal murder of a British soldier on the streets of London last year by two Islamist terrorists. This shamelessly passed the buck that should have stopped at the British intelligence services, which had monitored the killers over several years.

Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee said the website, later revealed to be Facebook, failed to inform the authorities that one of the killers, Michael Adebowale, wrote of his murderous intentions on Facebook six months before he and an accomplice, Michael Adebolajo, killed army drummer Lee Rigby in May 2013 and attempted to behead him.

Facebook had closed some of Adebowale’s accounts after its automated systems flagged up terrorist concerns, but Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the chairman of the ISC and a former British foreign secretary, insisted that if MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, had had access to this information there was “a significant possibility that MI5 would have been able to prevent the attack.” Rifkind accused Facebook of providing a “safe haven for terrorists,” adding that the murder “happened on this U.S. Internet company’s watch.”

In actual fact, the murder happened on the British government’s watch, and that of increasingly hapless intelligence services.

Rifkind’s diatribe served two purposes. First, it was a crude attempt to deflect attention from a string of failings by MI5 and MI6 that were highlighted in the ISC report. Second, it paved the way for the government’s sweeping new anti-terror laws, which give police draconian powers to force Internet firms to hand over details that might identify suspected terrorists and other criminals. The legislation was unveiled at the same time as the ISC report was made public.

The ISC exonerated MI5 and MI6 yet its report lays bare how much the intelligence services knew about the killers, both of whom are British citizens and are now serving life sentences.

Adebolajo, the leader of the attack, had been the subject of five separate investigations and surveillance operations by MI5. In 2010 he was arrested in Kenya while traveling to Somalia to join Al-Shabab. MI6, Britain’s overseas security service, was notified of the arrest but failed to interview Adebolajo or even sit in on the Kenyan interviews. While the ISC was scathing in its criticism of Facebook, it merely said MI6’s failure to follow up on the Kenyan arrest was “deeply unsatisfactory.”

For the next two years Adebolajo was under intensive MI5 surveillance, then inexplicably, a month or so before the murder, it stopped. It has been claimed that around this time MI5 was trying to recruit him as an informant.

Meanwhile, the other killer, Adebowale, had been investigated on two occasions. MI5 had even decided to start a new intensive “intrusive” surveillance operation against him in the weeks before the murder. However, it delayed seeking the required legal permission from the home secretary until the day before Rigby was killed.

In short, the report’s findings clearly indicate that better intelligence work and more decisive action by both agencies would have reduced the danger posed by these men, perhaps even saved Rigby’s life. But the ICS ignored its own findings and heaped opprobrium on Facebook instead.

This isn’t the first time the security services have escaped condemnation for their failings. A government inquiry into the July 7, 2005, bombings in London also absolved MI5, despite the fact the leaders of the attack, which killed 52 people, were, in the parlance of the spooks, “known” to the service.

While everyone needs to be vigilant against terror threats, it is surely not the responsibility of Internet companies to intercept individual emails. Even the security services are only supposed to be able do so when backed by a warrant, issued by the home secretary in the U.K. and by a judge in the United States.

But, as the ISC revealed, the security services did not seek a warrant until it was too late. If MI5 didn’t think the killers’ Internet activity needed monitoring, why should Facebook?

The rush to blame Facebook, and further invade Internet privacy, will merely drive terrorists to find other ways to communicate. The rush to strike fear into commuters with miserable, shameful, leaflets will convince the terrorists that they are succeeding in terrorizing the country. And the sordid rush to implement a litany of heavy-handed, coercive measures in the shape of the government’s anti-terror legislation is a victory for paranoia and fear over calm heads and leadership.

What the government and the ISC should be doing is asking whether this constant corrosion of our civil liberties would be needed at all if the intelligence services just did their job properly in the first place.

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 02, 2014, on page 7.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The U.K’s ill-fated secret terror trial

The Daily Star,
Monday, November 17 2014
By Michael Glackin

You really couldn’t make it up. Britain’s first ever secret terror trial, the one the government spent large amounts of tax payers money trying to keep under wraps, has collapsed after the jury failed to reach a verdict.

Last week, the judge was forced to discharge the Old Bailey jury of seven women and five men and call a halt to the trial, which lasted a month and was mostly heard in camera, behind closed doors.

So, British law student Erol Incedal, who is accused of either targeting former Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie, or preparing to carry out a “Mumbai-style” gun attack on the streets of London, now faces a retrial next year.

Incedal, who was born in Turkey and is from a Turkish-Kurdish family, is charged with preparing acts of terrorism and possessing bomb-making instructions. He denies the offenses.

This much we know. However, because of the secrecy surrounding the trial we still have no idea of the entirety of evidence the jury was considering, nor why it was unable to reach a verdict.

A small number of accredited journalists were allowed to attend parts of the trial, but they were unable to report on proceedings. In all, 40 hours of evidence was heard behind closed doors, which included virtually all of Incedal’s defense. Eight hours was heard with the 10 accredited reporters present, and 12 hours in open court. The defendant was present throughout.

Throughout each of the secret evidence sessions the journalists had to surrender their mobile phones, which were then locked away in soundproof boxes. At the end of each session, the journalists had to hand their notebooks to a police officer to be locked in a safe at court.

Although all that sounds like something from Stalin’s Soviet Union, it bizarrely represents a very limited concession to open justice forced on judiciary after several newspapers took the government to court. Originally the Crown Prosecution Service, supported by the government, demanded all details of the case remain private on grounds of “national security.”

Considering the jury appears to have been unconvinced by the evidence presented during the case, the government should now thank those newspapers for their determination in winning these meager concessions. At least the public’s awareness of the jury’s inability to reach a decision offers some hope that the trial is less of a stitch-up than all the secrecy surrounding it infers.

What we were able to learn during the trial is that Incedal was stopped and arrested by police in September last year while speeding in a black Mercedes E class saloon through the streets of London. A slip of paper with the address of one of the Blair’s homes was discovered in the car by police officers, who then planted a bug in the vehicle which picked Incedal’s conversations over the following days.

After listening in for a few weeks, during which Incedal was heard on tape to complain about “pigs” – slang for police, and talk about a “Plan B,” because he feared the authorities were on to him, armed police stopped Incedal’s car again, this time shooting the tires out from under it. They then arrested him, along with a man who was driving the car, Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadja, on suspicion of being terrorists.

Incedal was found with bomb-making plans, labelled “Good Stuff,” on an SD memory card hidden in the cover of his mobile phone. Following a search of his home address in south London police discovered notes for a “Plan A,” which appeared to concern a checklist for a potential operation that involved “one-month surveillance,” renting an apartment, and uniforms.

At a second address in west London, which Incedal shared, officers found a laptop computer containing what the prosecution claimed were coded messages about a “Mumbai-style” massacre – when armed terrorists from Pakistan killed 164 people in India’s most populous city in a series of coordinated attacks which included one on a Jewish center in 2008.

The prosecution also claimed Incedal had been researching ISIS online and had communicated with someone abroad via Skype to purchase a Kalashnikov rifle. A photograph of an East London synagogue was also discovered on Incedal’s iPhone.

Summing up the case for the jury before their ill-starred deliberations, the judge, Justice Andrew Nicol, said the prosecution had to prove that Incedal intended to commit an act of terrorism or had persuaded others to do so.

Incedal, who took the stand in his own defense, denied he intended to commit an act of terrorism. He accepted that he possessed the memory card but said he had a “good excuse” for doing so.

Justice Nicol said Incedal’s defense included a claim that he was interested in armed robbery rather than terrorism. The notes that the prosecution said were for a terror plot were part of a plan to rob a jewelers. The judge added that Incedal planned to carry out the robbery with three sons of Abu Hamza al-Masri, the extremist cleric, although he had not mentioned the plan to Abu Hamza’s sons.

The judge also told the jury that Incedal believed resistance to foreign intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan was “justified” and that he supported rebels opposing the Assad regime in Syria. However, the court was also told that Incedal believed terrorism in Britain was “immoral and contrary to Islam.”

The court was also told about Incedal’s troubled childhood. His father had been a member of the Turkish communist party and died when he was very young. His sister was a member of the PKK and was killed in fighting. His mother, who was from the Kurdish Syrian-Iraq region, brought Incedal and his siblings to Britain when he was 1 year old.

And that is pretty much all we know.

Incidentally, Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who was driving the car the night its tires were blown out by police, pleaded guilty last month to possessing “bomb making” documents that were also found on a memory card hidden in his mobile phone. He will be sentenced at the end of next year’s retrial.

One hopes all, or at least more, of the retrial will be heard in open court. Following the collapse of the trial, Britain’s most senior judge warned that the secrecy surrounding this controversial case must “never, ever” happen again.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, said that “a lot of this stuff” could be heard in open court and that in the limited cases where evidence needed to remain secret the reasons should be clearly explained.

This ill-fated exercise in secrecy should be the first and last time a government, or “national security,” is ever allowed to gnaw at the rule of law and erode the principle of open justice. The retrial provides an opportunity for the government to hit the reset button. Let us hope it does the right thing. Justice demands it.

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 November 17, 2014, on page 7.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Burying the truth about Britain’s Iraq war

The Daily Star
Friday, November 7 2014
By Michael Glackin

When something goes badly awry in British public life, particularly when a government is caught up in a mess of its own making, the default response of politicians is to set up a public inquiry.

Public inquiries can occasionally expose the truth after a scandal or major controversy. Sometimes they even decide who is culpable. But in Britain, public inquiries are less about digging up the truth, and more about burying it.

So no sooner had the British Army solemnly lowered the Union Flag at Camp Bastion in Helmand province, with a ceremonial efficiency that their military operations in Afghanistan too often lacked, than the cry went up in parliament for a public inquiry into the nation’s involvement in the 13-year war.

In many respects a public inquiry into this long and bloody conflict is desperately needed. It has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Afghans and 453 British military personnel, and cost British taxpayers around $60 billion.

Despite this, Defense Secretary Michael Fallon admitted there was “no guarantee”Afghanistan would be “stable” or “safe” after Britain’s departure.

“The Taliban are still there, there is still insurgency,” he said.

An inquiry could shed some light on why the purpose of Britain’s operations in Afghanistan changed so often during the conflict. It might explain whether Britain’s troops were there too long, or whether they should have been there at all.

However, the smart money says a public inquiry will be about as enlightening as a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Witness the soap opera that is the long-awaited report of the official inquiry into the Iraq war.

The inquiry, which began taking evidence in 2009, is chaired by a top judge, Sir John Chilcot. In essence Chilcot was charged with establishing precisely why then Prime Minister Tony Blair, who testified to the inquiry in 2011, committed British forces to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – in the face of huge public opposition – and what lessons could be learned from mistakes leading up to the war and its aftermath.

The last witnesses to the inquiry gave their evidence more than three years ago. But astonishingly the inquiry’s findings remain unpublished.

The delay is largely because of a row over what is bizarrely described as “private correspondence” between Blair and U.S. President George W. Bush in the months before the invasion. This consists of 25 letters Blair sent to Bush, along with the transcripts of 130 telephone calls between the two men.

Chilcot wanted to publish the correspondence. But British Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who oddly enough was Blair’s principal private secretary in the run-up to the invasion, refused, insisting it would jeopardize relations with Washington.

Instead a deal was struck between Heywood and Chilcot to release “selected extracts.” The deal also means no detail of Bush’s comments or views made during the exchanges will be made public.

In Heywood’s words, the “gist” of the crucial conversations between the two men will be published, but the reality is that the full details of these important public documents will remain secret.

We all know the “gist,” it’s the detail we all want to hear. We want to know whether Blair really did write to Bush in July 2002 and say: “You know, George, whatever you decide to do, I’m with you.”

The letter, which was quoted in journalist Andrew Rawnsley’s book The End of the Party and was based on his interviews with David Manning, Blair’s foreign policy adviser, and Sir Christopher Meyer, then Britain’s ambassador to the U.S., was written almost a year before the British parliamentary vote on whether Britain would join the invasion.

Why a civil servant like Heywood, who had a close working relationship with Blair, should be in a position to censor what can be published by the inquiry beggars belief.

The only silver lining in the deal brokered by Heywood was that it was seen as a breakthrough that might finally allow the inquiry’s report to see the light of day.

But it wasn’t to be. Because it then emerged that before anything can be published, letters must also be sent to any individuals facing criticism in the final report to allow them an opportunity to respond, and presumably, dilute the criticism.

A spokesman for the inquiry has confirmed that the legal process in which figures like Blair will be given the chance to respond to the report has not even started and is likely to take at least two to three months to complete whenever it does begin.

In reality, with a general election due to be held in May, the inquiry’s report is unlikely to be made public until the middle of next year at the very earliest, six years after it started taking evidence.

Small wonder the whole sorry mess has been branded a “whitewash” and an “establishment stitch-up” by the relatives of servicemen who were killed during the conflict.

Accusations of a cover-up are not helped by the revelation that Chilcot asked the government to declassify 7,000 documents for publication but has so far only been given permission to publish 1,400 of them.

Contrast that with the government’s public inquiry into the hacking of telephone voicemails by a handful of journalists which published every scrap of relevant private correspondence and electronic communication.

It also led to a police investigation which has resulted in criminal prosecutions of journalists, several of whom were imprisoned.

The government is embroiled in similar accusations of a cover-up in its handling of a public inquiry into historic child abuse claims in which a number of senior politicians from the 1980s are suspected of being implicated.

So while there is real need for an inquiry into Britain’s part in the war in Afghanistan, one would have to say that based on the Iraq inquiry it would be a waste of time and money.

The long wait for the Iraq inquiry report shows that public inquiries need to be transparent and must be entirely free of government influence.

Experience shows that doesn’t happen when the establishment investigates itself.

As a wise observer of the British political scene once said: “It is only totalitarian governments that suppress facts. In this country we simply take a democratic decision not to publish them.”

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut based newspaper THE DAILY STAR, for which this commentary was written. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 07, 2014, on page 7

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

‘Jihadi John’ is not the main issue

The Daily Star
Tuesday, October 7, 2014
By Michael Glackin

Western intelligence agencies are apparently “closing the net” on the masked ISIS executioner known as “Jihadi John.” In early September it emerged that they have known his identity for some time, and believe that the killer with a London accent who was filmed apparently beheading U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning, comes from a South London suburb.

The continuing focus in the United Kingdom on “Jihadi John,” whom Prime Minister David Cameron has vowed to “hunt down” and “bring to justice,” says a lot about where the British are in this fight. Call me a cynic, but identified or not, it’s unlikely that Jihadi John will ever be caught or face justice.

But even if he were caught, tried and imprisoned, or killed in the current American-led aerial bombardment or by one of the American or British special service units known to be operating in Syria and Iraq, what difference will it make?

The problem is ISIS, not one psychopath who glories in his barbaric exploits before the camera. ISIS has been dishing out this sort of barbarity across Syria and Iraq for some time now while Cameron, President Barack Obama and others have stood by and watched. Cameron’s tough words on ISIS, terrorism, and Syrian President Bashar Assad have all been heard before. They have yet to be matched by meaningful action.

One shouldn’t read too much into last week’s overwhelming vote in Parliament to join the airstrikes against ISIS. The lure of “intervention lite,” where military action is restricted to pressing buttons from ships or airplanes, is attractive to British politicians who have to account to war-weary voters in what will be a fiercely contested general election in May.

It is true that support for British airstrikes in Iraq, which began Saturday with a sortie over northern Iraq by Tornado jets, is high following the gruesome beheadings of the Western hostages. This wasn’t the case when Cameron failed to gain support for Syrian intervention last year. But the British have become cautious, if not reluctant, warriors, and parliament’s approval for a desperately limited military action reflects this.

Cameron was left humiliated last year when Parliament rejected his bid to launch airstrikes against Syria. This time around he ensured the backing of the opposition Labour Party before putting the vote to parliament. This is why the British fight with ISIS will be restricted to Iraq; any action in Syria must be put to a further vote before Parliament. This condition was imposed on the prime minister by Labour leader Ed Miliband, who will only support action in Syria if it is approved by the U.N. Security Council – extremely unlikely because of Russia’s and China’s veto.

Cameron did reserve the right to deploy the air force in Syria for “humanitarian” purposes without first consulting parliament. But in reality he wouldn’t dare. Not even a British drone can fly over Syria without parliamentary approval. Parliament also secured a commitment that the United Kingdom, in common with other Western nations, will not “put boots on the ground.”

Cameron talked about a “comprehensive strategy” to defeat ISIS, but what we are left with after the parliamentary bargaining is frankly incomprehensible. The principal argument put forward for British intervention is that ISIS poses a threat to national security. The prospect of large numbers of British jihadists returning home, versed in the latest terror techniques, clearly threatens the safety of the British people. Yet the ISIS stronghold remains in Syria, in Raqqa, where Jihadi John is mercilessly decapitating hostages. Surely it is more logical then to bomb Syria, where the bulk of British fighters are thought to be based.

Even more bizarre is the British failure, along with the rest of the Western countries, to deploy ground troops. It betrays a strict limit to the West’s appetite to face ISIS. The ridiculousness of this strategy is further compounded by the fact that there are currently no reliable forces on the ground in either Syria or Iraq.

Plans to strengthen the Free Syrian Army with weaponry to battle ISIS are unconvincing. The FSA is in disarray and needs arms the West still won’t supply. Those that have proved more capable of fighting ISIS, Hezbollah and the Syrian Army, are also fighting the FSA. Even allowing for the thaw in Western-Iranian relations to deal with ISIS is unlikely, to say the least, that the West can do business with either, particularly if it wants to retain Arab support for airstrikes that it worked so hard to create.

In Iraq, many Iraqi Sunnis remain unconvinced about Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s more inclusive government in Baghdad. The Kurdish peshmerga will only fight for their territory. And for all the U.S. and British training, and despite its overwhelming superiority in numbers, the Iraqi Army, as recent events have proved, is less than effective on the battlefield.

The descent of Libya into chaos has shown that dropping bombs from great heights without following up properly on the ground creates more problems than it resolves. The mantra “no boots on the ground” leaves the West completely unable to influence events. Already reports are emerging that ISIS is moving to other areas, and there is anger about civilian deaths.

While containing the expansion of ISIS is important, it is not the same as eradicating it. An organization that has annexed great swaths of Iraq and Syria, despite being outnumbered, is unlikely to be bombed out of existence.

Against this backdrop the identity of “Jihadi John” and his fate is irrelevant. ISIS has hundreds if not thousands of “Jihadi Johns” who have committed the same barbaric deeds in villages, town squares and other places away from the public glare. That so much attention should be on him betrays a worrying truth. Strip away the rhetoric and you are left with the inescapable conclusion that the West simply doesn’t have much stomach for this fight.

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 October 07, 2014, on page 7.

Friday, 26 September 2014

What Scotland meant to the Arab states

The Daily Star
Friday, September 26 2014
By Michael Glackin

So, South Sudan is still the world’s newest country. Scotland has voted against independence, and the United Kingdom remains united. For now at least.

Despite the often-zealous patriotism of Scots, the desire of many to break away from the 307-year-old union with England was less about nationalism, the doctrine that defined 19th and 20th century independence movements, and more about creating a just and equal society. Many Scots believe the free-market-obsessed government in London had increased inequality.

Even Scots who voted against independence – largely because they believed they would be worse off financially outside the union – want increased self-governance within the U.K.

In this, the Scottish independence debate had echoes of the Arab Spring. Central to the plea for universal rights made by the protesters who took to the streets across the Middle East was a demand that government be brought closer to the people. With the Arab Spring, the Middle East reached a crucial turning point, but, to borrow a phrase from European history, failed to turn.

In its wake the Middle East has descended into unparalleled ethnic and sectarian bloodletting that has plunged the region into chaos and threatens the borders and integrity of half a dozen states, from Lebanon to Yemen.

Instead of universal values, exclusivity is the mantra of both extremists and bizarrely, many liberals, who see separation and the dismantling of frontiers that divide religious and ethnic groups as the way forward. For instance the barbaric violence in Iraq between Sunnis and Shiites, along with the Kurds’ now pivotal role in combatting the threat posed by ISIS, has increased the prospect of the division of the country into at least two parts, and maybe three.

Syria could also split in three. The country’s Kurds could end up in the Kurdistan that may be won for them by their Iraqi brethren. And some have suggested that an Alawite state could take shape along the coast and hills surrounding Latakia.

It may sound ludicrous, but much learned ink has been spilt gleefully predicting the demise of the arrangements the British and French created during and after World War I, which established Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, and later resulted in the creation of Israel.

While observers have been queuing up to pour scorn on the “artificial” nature of the states created by the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement and subsequent arrangements, which lumped disparate tribes or peoples together, one could equally argue that their possible demise says as much about Arab unity as it does about Western imperialism. In fact, the current turmoil in the Middle East isn’t about failed states; it’s about failed governance.

On one level at least Sykes-Picot was progressive in that it established modern multi-confessional, multiethnic states. The failure of Arab rulers and governments to forge societies in which religious and ethnic minorities can properly coexist is not something that can be readily ignored.

There are those who blame British imperial “divide and rule” policies for Sudan’s woes, but the creation of South Sudan in 2011 came about because the mainly Christian and Animist people in the south were repressed by the rule of the Arab Muslim north. Western countries may have encouraged the secessionists, but their intervention would have been unnecessary had the government in the north governed its multi-confessional and multiethnic society fairly.

The Baath in Syria and Iraq proved adept at colonial divide and rule policies too, and were responsible for discriminative, in some cases genocidal, policies against ethnic groups.

If the clarion call of the Arab Spring was democracy and equality, it is surely worth asking why so many people who aspired to such values now imagine the future of their countries not as places that embrace diversity and pluralism, but as fragmented entities based on religious or ethnic identity. The divisions being discussed by those who insist that Sykes-Picot is dead are likely to create more problems than they resolve.

India was divided when Britain relinquished control because its Muslims were convinced that they could not prosper in a country with a Hindu majority. Under the able stewardship of Muhammad Ali Jinnah Pakistan was carved out of India. But within 25 years Pakistan itself split, because East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh, was largely excluded from the political process and economic development. Religious uniformity didn’t disguise injustice or hold a badly governed country together.

Talking of bad government, the changing aspirations of some long-suffering Palestinians is illustrative too. Earlier this year, before the Gaza conflict, Tareq Abbas, the son of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, told the New York Times that he had joined the growing number of young Palestinians who believe a one-state solution, where Palestinians would share equal rights with Israeli Jews, offers the best way to settle the region’s longstanding conflict.

Until the late 1960s Fatah also supported a bi-national solution, a single state that would “establish a free and democratic society in Palestine for all Palestinians whether they are Muslims, Christians or Jews.” It is extremely unlikely to happen, but it is also clear that many young Palestinians now view universal civil rights as more important than a narrow nationalism that defines borders by ethnic origin or religion.

At any rate, the Arab world has in the last century tended toward the super state rather than smaller states, from Sherif Hussein’s aspiration to unite Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, under his rule right through to the Pan-Arabism of Gamal Abdel Nasser. This impulse now manifests itself in the brutal “caliphate” of ISIS, whose solution to dealing with religious minorities and political adversaries is to slaughter them.

It was fear rather than ambition or Pan-Arabism that was the immediate catalyst for Syria’s decision to “merge” with Egypt into the short lived United Arab Republic. It was prompted by the need to enlist Nasser’s protection against a possible communist takeover. The UAR broke apart because Syrian national pride, not created by Sykes-Picot, was piqued by Egyptian domination.

Despite the fact that 55 percent of Scots voted “No” to independence, the debate surrounding the issue has revealed a demand for democratic change in the U.K. that the government and the opposition parties have agreed to address.

What Scotland’s vote should tell the Arabs is that rather than act as cheerleaders for ethnic and sectarian division, they should ensure that out of the current turmoil, the process of building institutions that respect all those within its borders and create Arab unity should no longer be ignored.

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 September 26, 2014, on page 7.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Can the anti-ISIS alliance succeed?

The Daily Star
Tuesday September 9 2014
By Michael Glackin

An American secret service agent at last week’s NATO summit in Wales had to be rushed to hospital after a car in the presidential motorcade ran over his foot. The unfortunate agent wasn’t alone in being left nursing a wound after the summit. The idea of a unified, coherent strategy to tackle the ISIS looked distinctly fractured too.

Western leaders ramped up their rhetoric against ISIS, but offered little in the way of a meaningful strategy to bring them to heel. While a “core coalition” of 10 nations, including the United Kingdom, signed up for what is likely to be a major military onslaught, 18 other NATO members refused to join. And even within the coalition there were divisions about how to proceed.

While U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attempted to inject much-needed momentum into tackling ISIS, calling for agreement on an international plan to deal with the group in time for this month’s meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, British Prime Minister Cameron insisted the West, and the U.K. in particular, was not “at the stage” where military action could be taken.

Indeed, there was evident irritation within Cameron’s government at Kerry’s apparent desire to hastily place Western nations at the forefront of the effort to tackle ISIS at a time when the U.K. was in the delicate process of trying to build an Arab coalition with Sunni allies in the Middle East, most notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Cameron stressed the need to “proceed carefully and methodically” and, along with French President Francois Hollande, insisted it was best to wait until a new “inclusive” Iraqi government was in place before launching military action. That could take months.

Obama is to set out his “game plan” for defeating ISIS this week. But it seems clear from last weekend’s airstrikes against ISIS in Anbar province in western Iraq that Washington is not going to wait for an “inclusive” government to be formed in Baghdad.

Further differences within the “core coalition” were also exposed when Cameron lashed out at governments – widely understood to include three members of the coalition, Germany, France and Italy, along with Spain – that choose to pay ransoms to ISIS and other militant groups for the return of kidnapped nationals.

The British government is understood to be negotiating through “intermediaries” to gain the release of British national David Haines, who was paraded in a video showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff last week. However, it has steadfastly refused to pay for his release.

In fact, the 10-nation coalition agreed on one thing only: that any military action would stop short of putting conventional troops into battle, which Kerry described as “a red line for everybody.”

But while Western leaders repeat the mantra “no boots on the ground,” the reality is that a campaign against ISIS cannot prevail without at least some Western military presence to help secure the areas bombed from above.

Cameron, U.S. President Barack Obama and other leaders, are aware of this. Western special service units will be on the ground, but the West has no intention of putting large numbers of troops in harm’s way. They do not want to end up hostages to fortune, to what could again prove to be a bloody long-term military and political commitment without a clear exit strategy.

That is part of the reason, along with the need to escape the shadow of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, why Cameron is so keen to ensure Arab involvement in actions against ISIS. This involvement would be in the shape of cash, manpower and future political commitment. However, Arab support is likely to be patchy, and could prove impossible to broker, as Kerry may discover when he visits the Middle East this week.

That said, the meeting of Arab League foreign ministers in Cairo Sunday endorsed taking of “all necessary measures” against ISIS and promised that member states were prepared to cooperate with international efforts to defeat ISIS.

Both the American and British governments believe direct military involvement by the Arab states against ISIS could be possible within the framework of the so-called Arab League joint defense pact. Some may remember that the last effective action orchestrated under the defense pact was the ban on Elizabeth Taylor films in the Arab world during the mid-1950s, because of the actress’ support for Israel. In reality the way the pact is formulated makes collective Arab military action difficult.

For example, there isn’t much Saudi Arabia and Qatar can agree upon, and neither wants to embark on a military campaign that would aid a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad, Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, and ultimately strengthen Tehran’s regional power. The U.K. places much faith in Jordan, but King Abdullah’s much-touted participation in the NATO summit was barely noticeable after his arrival.

Elsewhere, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates have shown a clear, some would say worrying, willingness to take responsibility for regional affairs as evidenced by their cooperation in launching airstrikes against extremist Islamist militias in Libya.

Even an Arab coalition of sorts does not address the more complex issue of whether to launch airstrikes on ISIS strongholds in Syria. When Obama talks about “defeating” ISIS, Syria is where the group must ultimately be faced. Let us hope the president can offer a coherent strategy for defeating ISIS when he speaks on Wednesday – one to which the West and regional powers can really sign up. Otherwise, the damage the West is inflicting on itself and the region will take longer to heal than the hapless secret service agent’s sore foot.

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 09, 2014, on page 7.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Cameron channels Western incoherence

The Daily Star
Friday, August 22 2014
By Michael Glackin

Is British Prime Minister David Cameron really making the case for the return of British armed forces to Iraq? The short answer is no. Indeed, bearing in mind the United Kingdom’s ignominious retreat from Basra in 2007, when the army was forced to negotiate a safe exit with insurgents, one wonders why he even bothered attempting to make the case in the first place.

In case you missed it, last week Cameron penned an article for a Sunday newspaper in which he warned of the threat posed to the West by the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. Cameron insisted that the West could not ignore the Islamic State’s “caliphate,” which could lead to a “terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean.”

Cameron also warned that the Islamic State could terrorize Britain’s streets. The seriousness of this proposition was underlined this week by the group’s beheading of American journalist James Foley. The killing appeared to have been carried out by a man with a London accent.

Ratcheting up the Churchillian rhetoric, Cameron continued: “We are in the middle of a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology, which I believe we will be fighting for the rest of my political lifetime.”

Two thoughts sprang to mind. First, Cameron’s “political lifetime” could arguably be measured in months as the clock ticks down to next year’s election in May, whereas the lifetime of the Islamic State, or whatever it metamorphoses into, is unfortunately likely to be measured in years.

Secondly, the last time Cameron sounded the clarion call to military action in the Middle East, against Syria 12 months ago, he was forced to back down after he was resoundingly defeated by a parliamentary vote he needlessly insisted on calling.

Indeed, fear of a revolt among parliamentarians is probably why a day after Cameron’s article appeared, he bizarrely backtracked on most of what he appeared to be favoring. From fighting the Islamic State “for the rest of my political lifetime” Cameron insisted that “Britain is not going to get involved in another war in Iraq. We are not going to be putting boots on the ground. We are not going to be sending in the British army.”

The upshot is that, once again, British policy in the Middle East remains about as clear as mud.

Quite what prompted Cameron to wade into this particular global crisis is a mystery. For months he had appeared happy to ignore the steady advance of the Islamic State, just as he has ignored the escalating crisis in Ukraine and bloody conflicts in the Gaza Strip, Libya, Nigeria and elsewhere.

Having watched the Islamic State put people of all religious denominations to the sword across Syria and Iraq, Cameron’s call to arms merely fueled the conspiracy theories of those in the region who, not entirely inaccurately, argue that the West is more interested in protecting Iraqi oil fields than Iraqis.

The area controlled by the Kurds, whom the United States is currently helping militarily against the Islamic State, accounts for almost a third of Iraq’s oil reserves.

However, the odds on British military involvement in Iraq are long. Although British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed RAF Tornado jets were carrying out surveillance flights over Islamic State positions in an operation he said would last for “weeks and months,” the RAF has played no part in the recent U.S. airstrikes across northern Iraq.

Against that backdrop, it is hard not to conclude that the saber rattling from Cameron at the weekend was aimed at a domestic audience. The black flag of the Islamic State was hoisted over an east London housing estate a few days before Cameron’s article, while leaflets urging people to join the group have even been handed out on the streets of the capital. In his article Cameron warned that anyone pulling similar stunts would be arrested.

Strong words that actually amount to nothing reflect a wider ambivalence within the British electorate about the Middle East. Voters are asking why the rich Arab Gulf states are not doing more to defeat the Islamic State. For example, what remains of the Iraqi military is operating without U.S. air cover, which is being exclusively used to help the Kurds. Yet Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are proud possessors of advanced combat aircraft, from the F-15 and the F-16 to the Typhoon.

Cameron alluded to this sentiment in his article. He wrote that the U.K. would lead a diplomatic process to tackle the Islamic State that would include the Gulf monarchies and “perhaps even ... Iran.”

But against this is the fact that current U.S. policy, which Cameron and other Western leaders are falling behind, is firmly centered on the Kurds. U.S. firepower has so far been entirely focused on supporting the peshmerga.

Arming the Kurds directly, notably bypassing the new government in Baghdad, clearly boosts Kurdish separatism. Up to now the West has sought to contain the Kurdish desires, mindful both of the impact of Iraq’s fragmentation and the repercussions an independent Kurdistan would have on Turkey and Iran, which have their own large Kurdish minorities.

Moreover, the Kurds will not defeat the Islamic State. Their sole goal is to remove the group from their region in Iraq. This hardly solves the problem of a “terrorist state on the shores of the Mediterranean.”

And while Cameron and Obama are reconciled to a Hobson’s Choice over Iran in terms of Iraq, reconciling a strategy for dealing with the Islamic State in Syria is more problematical.

Would the U.S. launch airstrikes to protect Aleppo or Damascus from the Islamic State? If so would that mark the beginning of recognition that President Bashar Assad of Syria is the lesser of two evils? It would certainly suit Iran, though definitely not Saudi Arabia.

Consequently far from making a case for British involvement in Iraq, Cameron’s doublespeak actually sums up the reality that the West still lacks a coherent long-term approach to Syria and Iraq, or to Islamist extremism. Cameron should remember the adage that sometimes it is better to say nothing and be thought a fool rather than open your mouth and prove it beyond doubt.

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 22, 2014, on page 7.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Cameron is at sea in the Middle East

The Daily Star
Tuesday, August 12 2014
By Michael Glackin

When the French philosopher and avowed atheist Voltaire was asked on his death bed to renounce Satan, he famously replied: “My good man, this is no time to be making enemies.”

Like Voltaire, British Prime Minister David Cameron also thought silence was the wisest option when he ignored the chorus of condemnation for Israel’s bloody military campaign in Gaza. Unfortunately, Cameron’s silence only succeeded in rousing his enemies. The prime minister’s failure to condemn Israel’s actions, or offer a view of whether its military response to Hamas’ rockets was “proportionate,” ignited a firestorm of criticism within his own party, with parliamentarians fearing his stance would cost them their seats in next year’s election.

In fact, with just eight months until the next election, the Gaza conflict has suddenly ambushed Cameron in much the same way as the Israeli attack against Lebanon in 2006 ensnared his predecessor Tony Blair, eventually helping facilitate his ouster.

Cameron has steadfastly refused to criticize, let alone condemn, the civilian slaughter in Gaza in which almost 2,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have died. Around 400 of the dead are children. Israel has said that 64 of its soldiers and three civilians have been killed.

For a man who four years ago described Gaza as a prison camp, Cameron has shown apathy to carnage that has led to a minor revolt within his government. Earlier this month Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the United Kingdom’s first female Muslim Cabinet minister, resigned from her junior post in the Foreign Office, condemning Cameron’s Gaza policy as “morally indefensible.” Her resignation could potentially weaken Conservative Party support among ethnic minorities in marginal seats in next May’s election.

More worrying for Cameron, the issue has provided a catalyst for a number of his senior colleagues to turn on him, including the government’s former legal adviser Dominic Grieve.

The junior partner in Cameron’s coalition government, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, has also called for a ban on all arms exports to Israel, worth around $14 billion to the U.K., and for direct talks between the Israeli government and Hamas.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party leader Ed Miliband, whose Jewish father and grandfather escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to Britain during World War II, condemned what he called Cameron’s “silence on the killing of innocent Palestinian civilians caused by Israel’s military action.”

If all that wasn’t enough, Cameron’s biggest rival for the leadership of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson, the popular Mayor of London, announced his intention to return to parliament in next year’s election. The move is widely seen as a precursor for him to challenge Cameron. Johnson was quick to describe Israel’s military action as “disproportionate” and “ugly.”

But amid the criticism and Cameron’s seeming indifference to the bloodshed, it is worth asking what exactly is British policy toward Gaza, and indeed to the wider Palestinian issue?

The government itself doesn’t seem able to articulate a strategy beyond the usual platitudes of “resolving the issues underlying the conflict,” and a commitment to “a two-state solution,” all of which should be taken with a bucket of salt.

The reality is the U.K. hasn’t uttered a meaningful word of protest in the years that Israel has consistently ignored calls for a dialogue to address the Palestinians’ plight. Having refused to engage meaningfully with the moderates, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has eroded the credibility of the negotiating process, deliberately pushing people toward the extremists whom Israel makes great play of refusing to negotiate with.

The U.K. has been happy to support this subterfuge. Such dialogue that does take place is merely a shroud that can no longer hide the obscenity that apparently no one cares what happens to Palestinians, even when their children are murdered. And in this, British policy toward Gaza is in line with the U.K.’s wider Middle East strategy, which is to ignore all crises and hope either the United States resolves them or that they blow over.

That said, the U.K. is, like much of the West, aware that against the backdrop of an increasingly unstable Middle East, even by the chaotic standards of the region, there is a wider proxy war being fought in Gaza, one with Iran at its center.

That is because the primary regional issue is Iran’s nuclear ambitions, caught between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s desire to trade parts of the program for a relaxation of sanctions and a free hand to increase Tehran’s regional influence, and supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s apparent desire to trade nothing.

The desperation of Washington to reach a deal with Tehran before year’s end has spooked the West’s traditional regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They fear the price for an agreement will see Iranian influence expanding at their expense. Like Israel, nothing short of the destruction of Tehran’s nuclear program will satisfy Riyadh and Cairo.

In a deliberate provocation to both countries, Khamenei recently called on Muslims to unite and defend Gaza, a crude attempt to position Iran as a regional leader for all Muslims, despite the earlier cooling of relations between Tehran and Hamas over the Syrian conflict. Iranian backing is crucial for Hamas, for while Qatar and Turkey – both keen to usurp Egypt’s regional influence – are substantial backers of the group, Iran appears to be its only reliable source of arms.

The U.K. sees Iran as a destabilizing influence. Its presence looms large in regional trouble spots – in Iraq, Syria and through Hezbollah in Lebanon too. Against that backdrop, the U.K., like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, along with United Arab Emirates and Jordan, is mindful that Hamas’ destruction in Gaza would cut off another potential sphere of Iranian influence in the Arab world.

At the same time, crushing Hamas, combined with the routing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, both of whom won power through the ballot box, has the added appeal to a number of conservative Arab regimes of consigning the idea of democracy as a panacea for the region’s ills to the dustbin of history.

The U.K.’s reaction to this is to quietly cheer. For all Cameron’s espousal of democracy when he visited Egypt just weeks after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, he has happily supported the military coup there which ousted the elected President Mohammad Morsi. It also explains Cameron’s silence over Gaza.

What political game plan remains will be centered on trying to re-establish the role of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Gaza. The problem, as one politician pointed out to me last week, is that while the recent Palestinian unity government, including Fatah and Hamas, may have delivered a more compliant Hamas, the Gaza conflict makes any compromise much less likely.

Any attempt by Abbas to do business with Israel that did not involve the removal of both the Israeli and Egyptian blockade on Gaza will discredit him further in the eyes of most Palestinians.

With that in mind, and if the U.K. is serious about “resolving the issues underlying the conflict” it is surely time the government finally abandoned its refusal to talk to Hamas and bring it into a political framework with Abbas.

Regardless of Cameron’s silence, the bigger picture must surely be to get the gun out of Middle East politics and get all sides talking. As Churchill said, “to jaw jaw, is better than to war war.”

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

Monday, 7 July 2014

Secrecy in court sets a dark precedent

The Daily Star
Monday, July 7, 2014
By Michael Glackin

For a nation that traditionally prided itself on self-discipline and a stiff upper lip, the United Kingdom has suddenly developed a worrying tendency to press the panic button and overreact to the point of hysteria when it comes to national security.

Consider the case of Erol Incedal, a British national of Turkish origin, and Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, a British national of Algerian origin. Both men were due to face trial in June at the Old Bailey for terror offenses after being arrested in London last October. Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar are accused of possessing terrorist documents, including a file named “bomb making” on their mobile phones. Incedal is also charged with preparing to commit or assist in terrorist acts. Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, who until last year worked for a housing charity in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea, also faces a further charge of improperly obtaining a British passport.

Both men deny the charges. So what? Well, until two weeks ago you were not allowed to know anything about Incedal or Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, not their names nor the fact that they had been arrested. In fact, no one in the U.K. was even allowed to know that the pair were about to face trial. And, for the first time in British legal history, their trial was to be held in camera, in secret, behind closed doors.

That’s right. The government wanted the two men arrested, tried and convicted – well, after so much secrecy there is surely little chance they could be released – without anyone ever knowing it had happened, all in the name of an as yet unspecified threat to national security.

Following legal action by media groups, the U.K. appeal court ruled that some aspects of the case could be made public, but insisted that holding the “core” of the trial in secret was justified.

A similar defense was offered after the allegations made by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who exposed the shocking extent of government intrusion into the day-to-day lives of individuals. Unknown national security reasons “justify,” again, the abandonment of democratic scrutiny and accountability.

The parts of the trial that will be in public are the swearing-in of the jury, the reading of the charges, part of the prosecution’s opening statement, the verdicts, and any sentencing. The overwhelming majority of the trial will still be held behind closed doors.

In a bizarre twist, selected journalists will also be allowed to attend most of the proceedings, but will not be allowed to report on them. The reporters will have to sign confidentiality agreements and must leave their notes in the courtroom every day.

These few chinks of light serve only to illuminate the expanse of the black hole into which civil liberties are being sucked in this shabby affair. Increasingly, worrying precedents are being set by the British government that infringe on long-held rights. The U.K.’s approach to individual liberty these days fast resembles that of the former Soviet Union at its very worst rather than a mature liberal democracy.

Consider this. Having spent around $171 million of taxpayers’ money and employed anti-terrorism legislation to arrest and prosecute journalists who illegally hacked the phones of politicians, celebrities, and crime victims, the government now wants to impose draconian restrictions on what the newspapers can publish in the future.

These include a Royal Charter, which means basically a set of rules agreed by government and newspapers, but which Parliament would have the right to change later without recourse to the press. So for the first time in more than 300 years government would have the power to regulate what newspapers publish. That means if newspapers annoyed parliamentarians, say by exposing another expenses scandal, Parliament could get revenge by making the rules more draconian.

Meanwhile, British Home Secretary Theresa May recently called for the security services to be given even greater surveillance powers to counter the threat from “returning jihadists.” Considering the spooks are already circumventing current legal safeguards when intercepting emails and phone calls, it is chilling to imagine what further powers could allow them to do.

Indeed none of the nation’s freedoms appear to be beyond the grasp of government, not even the principle of an independent judiciary. Foreign Secretary William Hague and May are understood to have “told” the appeal court judges that if they refused to allow the bulk of the trial of Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar to be heard in camera the government would have to abandon the case, thereby setting two terror suspects free.

The government insists the need for this trial to be held in camera is “exceptional.” But it puts the principle of open trials on a decidedly shaky foundation. What happens when another “exceptional” need for a secret case arises now that we have allowed a precedent to be set?

There is a school of thought that argues the government wants to set a precedent in this case in order to protect its intelligence agencies from a range of potential legal actions over their complicity in “rendering” terror suspects to the United States through the use of Diego Garcia, a British-controlled atoll in the Indian Ocean leased to the U.S. The island is alleged to have been used to hold and torture suspects out of sight of the law. Based on assurances from the U.S., the British government has consistently denied the claims.

Yet in 2012 the government paid $3.5 million to Sami al-Saadi and his family who claimed they were forcibly transferred to Libya in 2004 via Diego Garcia when the U.K. and the U.S. were trying to curry favor with Moammar al-Gadhafi’s regime. And last year, a legal case was brought by two other Gadhafi opponents, Abdul Hakim Belhadj and his wife, who also claimed they were detained on Diego Garcia. It was turned down after the judge said their “well-founded claim” would jeopardize British national security.

There are obviously times when aspects of trials will need to be kept from the public. But safeguards already exist to allow reporters to attend a trial but which prohibit or postpone reporting. They have even been used in terror trials.

The national security concerns behind this over-reaction have not been made public and it remains uncertain whether the central proceedings of the trial of Incedal and Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, now due to take place in October, will ever be reportable.

Indeed, the question of who will choose which journalists can attend the trial remains unclear. Will it be the courts, the home secretary, the security services? In all cases the government will be dictating which journalists can attend and that is yet another worrying precedent.

Prime Minister David Cameron has talked lately about the need to instill “British values” in young Muslims living in the U.K. to prevent them from falling prey to Islamic extremism. But what message does a secret trial and the lurch to arbitrary and capricious government send to those young Muslims about British values? That democracy cannot stand up to terrorism unless it subverts what it stands for?

Justice should be seen to be done, before it can be said to be done. The need for open trials was succinctly summed up by Jeremy Bentham, the English Utilitarian philosopher, who said: “Publicity is the very soul of justice. It keeps the judge, while trying, under trial.”

The last time the British government attempted to hold secret trials was more than 300 years ago. It led to a revolution and the execution of a king and also gave birth to two more important revolutions, in America and France. The government should ensure that its needless panic doesn’t provoke a similar backlash come next year’s elections.

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

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

For Britain, pointlessness in Syria

The Daily Star
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
By Michael Glackin

Last month British Foreign Minister William Hague unveiled his government’s latest big idea to achieve its goal of regime change in Syria and end the country’s bloody three-year civil war.

In response to a conflict that has now cost an estimated 160,000 lives, created more than 9 million refugees, destabilized large swathes of the Middle East and emboldened both Russia and China, Hague proudly announced the United Kingdom had “decided to upgrade the status of the Syrian National Coalition’s Representative Office in London to a ‘Mission.’”

You can imagine the fear this must have struck into what passes for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s heart. An opposition the U.K. helped to create but doesn’t trust enough to arm is now the “official” representative of a people under siege.

Assad who has just been “re-elected,” is secure in the knowledge that the West has no plans to give weapons to moderate opposition groups, or revisit the potential for imposing a no-fly zone – probably the only measure that could now force him to the negotiating table, not to mention prevent further civilian deaths.

Meanwhile, as recent attacks show, Assad’s chemical weapons capability remains a threat and the regime’s bombing, torture and murder of opponents continues unabated as the U.K. frets over the growing strength of extremist jihadists and their potential to cause mayhem at home.

It is stating the obvious to say the upgrade to mission status is symbolic. Yet Hague again stopped short of recognizing the opposition as Syria’s government and, interestingly, the move does not grant SNC members full diplomatic immunity.

It matters little. When it comes to the Middle East, the U.K. is more ostrich than lion these days. Indeed, Hague looks increasingly out of his depth as myriad crises erupt across the globe. Speculation is rife that he intends to stand down in the coming year having tired of pursuing a foreign policy largely dictated by London’s need to slavishly follow Washington’s desires. Even the upgrading of the SNC to mission status followed a similar decision by the United States weeks earlier.

The U.K. appears to have washed its hands of Syria and indeed much else in the Arab world. The Foreign Office insists it remains “engaged with the region” but its ability to influence events is nonexistent.

The fate of Syria, and indeed British involvement in the rest of the Arab world, was decided in the space of 13 critical weeks in 2013 when Parliament voted against a token show of force against Assad for having used chemical weapons, and when the Saudi-backed Islamic Front overran the headquarters of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army at Bab al-Hawa. For all the talk in Washington and London about how much the FSA has “improved” since the Bab al-Hawa raid, and a desire to “change the dynamics on the ground in Syria,” the fact is neither the U.S. nor the U.K. trusts the SNC with weapons.

But even if the U.K. did trust the SNC, Prime Minister David Cameron’s government couldn’t even sell them a catapult without first winning a vote in Parliament. In fact, last year’s defeat in Parliament, when the lives of Syrians were sacrificed for sordid domestic British political considerations, effectively means Cameron’s government is incapable of taking any form of executive action in foreign affairs.

Cameron also has more pressing domestic issues to worry about. He must contest a parliamentary election next year amid a rising tide of public discontent that last month saw the right-wing isolationist and anti-European Union United Kingdom Independence Party triumph in British elections to the European Parliament.

Not long ago, Cameron took the lead in pushing for an intervention in Libya. But UKIP’s rise has meant that as Libya descended into chaos – largely because of a Western failure to provide follow-up support – Cameron has ducked below the parapet and remained silent.

He has adopted a similar approach in Egypt as the Arab world’s most populous nation slips back into autocracy. Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy’s meeting with Hague in London last month, which included ministerial level talks with a number of British businesses, was more focused on investment opportunities than the plight of the over 600 people on death row for opposing last year’s military coup – let alone the Al-Jazeera journalists on trial for simply doing their job.

Taking the lead in foreign affairs is no longer on the British government’s agenda, and Hague’s empty rhetoric and promises of support from the Friends of Syria group aren’t fooling anyone, least of all the SNC.

The SNC representative in the U.K., Walid Saffour, told me last week that the U.S. and the U.K. “have not formed a clear vision of the next step after the useless outcome of Geneva II.” He believes the West no longer knows what to do in the face of Assad’s “determination to destroy and kill in order to survive.” Saffour is aware that granting the SNC mission status does nothing for Syrians suffering from the conflict in their country.

Even the government’s “refocus” on humanitarian aid over the last six months looks half-hearted. As recently as last week, the heads of leading NGOs, including Save The Children and the International Rescue Committee, warned the British government that the humanitarian situation in Syria had deteriorated.

Much of this is due to the U.N. requirement that aid shipments be provided with the consent of the Assad regime, despite SNC claims that the Baath Party is hijacking the aid and “selling it in coastal towns.” The U.K. has now said next year it will provide a greater share of its aid – 50 percent, up from 30 percent today – to NGOs that do not seek the Syrian government’s assent. That is the extent of its help to the Syrian people.

The U.K. has cut and run in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. The reality isn’t just that the U.K. has failed in Syria, but that it has lost all interest in its outcome. Maybe it’s time to face facts, drop the pretense and ask Russian President Vladimir Putin what he wants to end this war.

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 10, 2014, on page 7.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Why peace without justice is an illusion

The Daily Star
Monday, May 13, 2014
By Michael Glackin

“History,” Winston Churchill is reputed to have told Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during World War II, “is written by the victors.” He might have added that justice is pretty much left in their hands too.

In the last week, news in the United Kingdom has been dominated by the arrest of Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the political arm of the paramilitary Irish Republican Party (IRA). Adams, now an elected parliamentarian in the Irish Republic, is the architect and linchpin of the Northern Ireland peace process, which in 1998 ended 30 years of violence that killed more than 3,000 people. Adams delivered the gunmen to the negotiating table and his party now jointly governs Northern Ireland.

Adams was arrested by police investigating the kidnapping and murder 40 years ago of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 children, and one of Ireland’s “disappeared.” Adams is accused of involvement in her death and of being in charge of an IRA unit that kidnapped, tortured and “disappeared” 15 other people whom it believed were informers during the blood-soaked troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. To date, the bodies of just nine of the disappeared have been found.

Adams’ brush with the law poses an uncomfortable question, but one that is familiar to the Lebanese: How far should justice for past crimes be pursued if it risks the peace and stability of the present?

His arrest raised fears for the still fragile peace he negotiated. His party indicated that its support for the police, support that has been critical for the peace process, would be “reviewed” if Adams were charged – a decision that is now in the hands of Northern Ireland’s Public Prosecution Service. Oddly enough, the head of public prosecutions, Barra McGrory, used to be Adams’ solicitor – such are the spoils of war. He has said he will delegate the prosecution decision to his deputy.

Lebanon has its own disappeared, of course. The official figure is around 15,000, even if some who have followed the issue believe the figure is lower. These cases have never been properly investigated, and successive governments have failed to lift a finger to elucidate the fate of the disappeared, despite the fact that nearly all those responsible for crimes during the Civil War have benefited from a general amnesty.

Like Northern Ireland, Lebanon’s failure to examine past crimes, indeed current crimes, is partly attributable to the presence in government of many of those involved in the violence.

But in both countries, the resistance also stems from the not unimportant fact that investigating past events is likely to reopen old wounds, cause civil unrest and, in the final analysis, is not going to bring victims back to their loved ones. In Lebanon, the decision earlier this year by the Shura Council finally allowing families of the disappeared access to two separate commissions of inquiry into the fate of their loved ones is progress of a sort. It may shed some light on the fate of many of the disappeared but without a strong nudge from government, it will not provide justice.

Moreover, it is unlikely to offer much solace to the families of those buried in mass graves uncovered after Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, including the 30 bodies found near the former Syrian army intelligence headquarters in Anjar. The commission set up to investigate that tragic episode never produced a report.

In Lebanon, even the assassinations of politicians tend to go largely uninvestigated and certainly unpunished. The much-trumpeted Special Tribunal for Lebanon does not appear to be an exception. The dock in The Hague is glaringly empty.

“Collective amnesia” is also on offer in Northern Ireland. People are encouraged to ignore a complex and gruesome past, lest the truth reignite old hostilities and fracture the fragile fault lines of the present. In short, it is better to forget individual crimes for the greater good, to put the interests of the state, its harmony and stability, above those of justice.

The rickety scaffolding that supports this distinctly dodgy argument is that in post-Civil War societies – Lebanon, Northern Ireland and others – there is a straight choice between justice and peace. You cannot have both.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was ensured immunity from prosecution as part of the country’s transition to democracy. Spain had its “pact of silence” and later, as it moved to its post-Francisco Franco democracy, an amnesty law. And in Argentina, a series of amnesty laws in the late 1980s protected those who committed heinous crimes during the “Dirty War” of the 1970s.

In each of these cases, the denial of justice to victims of former regimes was deemed to be a fair price to pay for peace.

But the argument that justice should not be allowed to undermine peace is a false one. A society where justice is denied, or shelved, cannot in reality have a peace worthy of the name. People are simply asked to suppress what they remember only too well. That doesn’t suggest peace, merely a cease-fire. Better than nothing certainly, but neither stable nor permanent.

Events prove that lack of justice is what really undermines peace and stability, and will do so as long as crimes go unpunished.

When Pinochet died in 2006, he was finally facing trial as public unrest grew at the amnesty in a democratic Chile. Similar pressure saw Argentina’s parliament scrap its amnesty laws 11 years ago and prosecute hundreds of former high-ranking military officials. Meanwhile, Spain remains under pressure to abandon its amnesty, as hundreds of Spaniards turn to the Argentine courts to seek justice for crimes committed during Franco’s rule, causing a big headache for Spain’s government and its courts.

The question we should be asking isn’t whether there is a stark choice between justice and peace in places such as Lebanon and Northern Ireland; but why the political structures in both countries remain too weak to withstand the pursuit of justice.

While meeting Stalin, Churchill also confessed he had helped organize attacks on the Soviet Union after World War I. “I hope you can forgive me,” he joked. Stalin, who once studied for the priesthood, replied: “It is for God to forgive.”

On Earth, we have to be content with justice. It shouldn’t be denied to anyone.

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 May 13, 2014, on page 7.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

The flight of the interventionists

The Daily Star
Friday, April 25, 2014
By Michael Glackin

Much learned ink has been spilt in recent weeks marking the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, where Hutu extremists, in a 100-day orgy of violence, murdered an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsis. While the United Nations had boots on the ground in Rwanda, the world stood by and watched the tragedy unfold.

NATO’s belated attack against Serbia over Kosovo five years later, in 1999, stemmed in large part from guilt over the U.N.’s failure to intervene in Rwanda. The Kosovo intervention was thought to have established a new world order, one in which human rights were paramount and where those leaders who abused their power and people had nowhere to hide.

Kosovo was the heyday of the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention.” Today, in Syria, we see its nadir. Humanitarian intervention has become the doctrine that dare not speak its name. On Syria, the so-called “liberal hawks” are silent.

The American writer Paul Berman, who I recently interviewed in Brooklyn, where he lives, wrote a fascinating book chronicling the political journey of some of the most vocal supporters of humanitarian intervention. They include the former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and the former French foreign minister and founder of Doctors Without Borders, Bernard Kouchner.

Berman’s “Power and the Idealists: Or, The Passion of Joschka Fisher and Its Aftermath” is a classic – a history book that reads like a novel, played out against the backdrop of global events from the late 1960s to the aftermath of the Iraq invasion in 2003.

An unabashed proponent of humanitarian intervention, Berman is angry that those who were most vocal in demanding action in Kosovo, and indeed more recently, in Libya, refuse to advocate intervention to protect civilians in Syria.

Fischer has consistently failed to back military action against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. As for Kouchner, he told BBC Radio last July, when a Western missile attack on Syria seemed imminent, that he wasn’t sure intervention was the best course of action. He thus reversed (and not for the first time) his earlier position on an issue.

Fischer and Kouchner are peripheral players on the political stage today. However, other liberal hawks, most notably U.S. President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, and his U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, are very much at center stage. And their silence on the Syrian bloodbath is deafening.

Commenting on the Clinton administration’s failure to act in Rwanda, Rice famously said: “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required.” Now Rice appears content to watch innocent Syrians go down in flames instead.

As for Power, her entire career has been built around her advocacy of humanitarian intervention. Her book, “A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide,” on America’s failure to stop several 20th-century genocides, won a Pulitzer Prize. That is why her quietude in particular is a disgrace and smacks of political expediency.

Berman summed up why the liberal hawks have become cowed liberal doves in a single word: Iraq. “It sounds simplistic, but unfortunately, the shadow of Iraq now hangs over the concept of humanitarian intervention,” he says. “Afghanistan too has become very unpopular, and because of the failures of both wars, but particularly Iraq, the idea of humanitarian intervention has become a mob debate in which people just jeer. The possibility of a nuanced position has all but disappeared.”

Berman believes that the West is now firmly wedded to the notion that Middle Eastern societies are dysfunctional and beyond helping. “The mood now is that nothing can be done for the people who are suffering in Syria, because there are no good guys,” he observes. “The unfortunate trend of most of the Arab Spring has contributed to this and strengthened the view that the best we can do is keep out of it. It’s simplistic, but it is the general public feeling, on both left and right, and here in the U.S. it conforms to President Barack Obama’s instincts, which are anti-war and isolationist.”

And yet, Obama played a key role in the limited NATO-led humanitarian intervention in Libya in 2011, an action he undertook without consulting the U.S. Congress, and that may now be seen as the last flight of the liberal hawks.

Clearly, the descent into chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya, including the murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, strengthened the hand of the isolationists.

But Berman draws an altogether different lesson from Libya. “The real lesson from Libya, and all these places, is that interventions have to be large,” Berman insists. “We didn’t intervene enough. We helped the Libyans get rid of Gadhafi and then left them alone. Without any great risk to ourselves we could have coordinated programs with the other Western powers to aid the admirable people in Libya. We didn’t and the vacuum was filled by tribal fighting, and so Libya became another factor in why we should not intervene elsewhere.”

What really disturbs Berman, however, is that Kosovo and other smaller interventions, and even the botched operation in Iraq, have failed to provide a consensual template for humanitarian intervention. “You would think almost 13 years after 9/11 that the U.S. in particular would have institutionalized responses for handling situations like Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali,” he argues. “At the end of the Second World War our leaders set up the United Nations, Bretton Woods, NATO. Why wasn’t anything along those lines set up after 9/11? Part of the problem is that we live in an age of political midgets. There are no Roosevelts or Trumans on the world stage.”

Berman makes a compelling case. However, blaming Iraq for the silence of the liberal interventionists today may be too easy. Key supporters of intervention in Kosovo, most notably French President Jacques Chirac and Fischer, were opposed to the Iraq invasion. And for all British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s espousal of human rights in a famous Chicago speech in 1999, neither he nor President George W. Bush used it to justify their ambition to invade Iraq. They preferred, instead, to invent, or cynically exaggerate, the threat Iraq posed to the West’s security in a largely failed attempt to win public support.

With that in mind, perhaps the real reason for the silence of the liberal hawks on Syria goes back to Berman’s earlier point about “political midgets.” Politicians today act like weathervanes and tend to respond to public opinion rather than lead it. Particularly in the U.S., there are few votes to be had in standing up for human rights in faraway lands.

Meanwhile, Assad will continue to accept the deafening silence of the liberal hawks as a signal from the West to continue the slaughtering of his own people. The wrenching pain of Rwanda cannot be unlived. But the tragedy today is surely that in Syria it is being lived again. Happy anniversary.
Michael Glackin is a 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 April 25, 2014, on page 7.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Tony Blair, the superfluous envoy

The Daily Star
Friday, February 28, 2014
By Michael Glackin

It’s hard to keep the former British prime minister, Tony Blair, out of the headlines. Whether it is avoiding an attempt by a waiter to arrest him for war crimes while he dined in a London restaurant, or his praising of the Egyptian Army coup, with its repression of civilians and jailing of journalists, Blair appears destined to always be with us.Last week, his name even popped up during one of the most high-profile British criminal trials of recent times. The court at London’s Old Bailey heard that the former prime minister offered his services as an “adviser” to media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and Rebekah Brooks, chief executive of Murdoch’s newspaper group News International, at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in 2011.

The one thing in which Blair doesn’t appear to be making any headlines is in his role as peace envoy for the Middle East Quartet. Yet, at around the same time as his name came up in the phone-hacking trial, Blair was in Jerusalem, on what his official spokesperson informed me was his 113th trip to the city as envoy. But Blair’s latest visit begs the question: What have Blair’s trips to Jerusalem and elsewhere in the Middle East, after almost seven years as envoy, actually achieved?

The long-standing political logjam between Israel and the Palestinians cannot entirely be laid at Blair’s door. Blair’s remit as envoy is, in the words of his spokesperson, “to promote economic growth and job creation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and support the institution-building agenda of the Palestinian Authority.”

Fair enough, but in the seven years since Blair was appointed, economic growth and unemployment in the Palestinian Territories have worsened. Last October, the World Bank noted that foreign budget support for the West Bank and Gaza had fallen by more than half in the last seven years. Meanwhile, GDP growth in the territories tumbled from 9 percent in 2008 to 5.9 percent in 2012 and plummeted to just 1.9 percent in the first half of 2013. In the West Bank, economic growth actually shrank for the first time in a decade, declining by 0.1 percent.

In the seven years since Blair became Quartet envoy, private investment in the Palestinian territories has averaged a mere 15 percent of GDP, way below standard rates in other small developing countries.

Political instability and infighting within and between Hamas and Fatah isn’t likely to attract investment in a hurry. However, the World Bank report made clear that Israeli restrictions on trade, imports, movement and access were the “dominant deterrent” to investment and cost the West Bank alone around $3.4 billion annually, almost 35 percent of GDP.

Despite Blair’s 113 trips to Jerusalem, and many meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has failed to significantly ease these restrictions. What progress he has boasted of, the lifting of a handful of the hundreds of checkpoints and unmanned barriers, is frankly small beer and has made no impact on improving the Palestinian Authority’s 25 percent unemployment rate.

Blair’s failure to boost economic growth because of the wider political wrangling has merely emphasized the futility and impotence of the role of envoy in effecting change.

But during the same seven years Blair has been Quartet envoy, he has managed to amass a personal fortune, now estimated to be in the region of $110 million, a large chunk of which has been paid to him by Middle East governments for his advice and contacts. This has led to accusations that his very successful consultancy business, Tony Blair Associates, is cashing in on contacts he has cultivated as envoy.

The role of envoy is unpaid – although expenses are picked up by taxpayers – but it affords Blair an obvious business platform in the region for his role as a “consultant” to governments and various investment houses. For instance, last week, in addition to being in Jerusalem, Blair also popped up in Kuwait, where he met with the country’s prime minister, Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Sabah. Blair’s office said the visit was in his capacity as Quartet envoy.

TBA has had a lucrative contract with the Kuwaiti government for many years and has also carried out work for Mubadala, an Abu Dhabi government-owned investment vehicle. Blair has also visited both countries in his role as envoy.

Blair’s spokesperson said: “All commercial work is completely separate from Mr. Blair’s role as Quartet Representative. ... Mr. Blair’s office adheres to the strictest of conflict of interest policies and is held to the gold standard in this respect.”

Blair’s spokesperson rightly pointed out that “serious progress on Palestinian economic development requires a political process. This has only really been possible since [U.S.] Secretary [of State] Kerry started his push for political negotiations last year.” It should be noted that these negotiations, aimed at removing some Israeli restrictions on movement and goods, will not include the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, with its 1.6 million inhabitants, or 40 percent of the population of Palestinian areas.

But the real problem is that the role of envoy has actually enabled political progress to fall into abeyance. It has provided threadbare cover for the failure of the Quartet to bring Israel to the negotiating table.

Blair espouses so-called “peace-economics” – laying the economic foundations of a Palestinian state ahead of its creation. But this is at best meaningless rhetoric and at worst a charade. It has done nothing other than allow Israel space to sidestep engaging with the Palestinians. While the Quartet discusses meaningless economic initiatives, Israeli settlements in the West Bank continue to multiply, making any prospect of a future settlement far less likely.

Blair’s predecessor as envoy, former World Bank President James Wolfensohn – who mostly based himself in the region during his year in the post – quit because he felt neither Israel nor the U.S. was serious about negotiating with the Palestinians. Why, given the absence of any achievement, does Blair doggedly cling to his role? Who benefits?

Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beiurt newspaper THE DAILY STAR. A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 28, 2014.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Writing an autopsy of Assad’s victims

The Daily Star
Tuesday, January 28 2014
By Michael Glackin

Sixty-nine years ago this week, soldiers of the Red Army liberated the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz in southwest Poland.

That the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the site of what is thought to be the largest mass murder in history, should have coincided with the release of a report exposing the atrocities of Bashar Assad’s regime, was not lost on one of the report’s authors.

Speaking to me last week, Sue Black, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist and co-author of the report, which accused the Assad regime of committing war crimes and crimes against humanity, said: “It is ironic that we are so close to the Auschwitz anniversary. Because examining the photographs of those starved remains was like going back in time and looking at photographs of the concentration camps. I have been doing forensic work for over 30 years and this is the worst I have seen. It is absolutely horrendous.”

Considering that Black led the British forensic team that exhumed the mass graves of Kosovo in 1999 and later identified victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, you can appreciate this is not hyperbole.

The photographs of prisoners killed by the Syrian security services and smuggled out of Syria by “Caesar,” an Assad regime photographer and defector, are, she insists, evidence of the torture and brutal murder of some 11,000 people.

Black is a scientist. She relies on hard evidence to reach conclusions, and for that reason retains an objective, unemotional detachment from the dark deeds her skills lead her to investigate. It is her painstakingly clinical approach that makes her conclusions about the suffering of those shown in the report all the more damning.

“In Kosovo, horrific as it was, one could understand the conflict side of things, and the victims were killed by gunshots. In the Asian tsunami, it was an unfortunate natural disaster. But here, the intensity of the one-to-one infliction of injury is horrendous. The deliberate personal suffering that has been inflicted on the victims is truly shocking.”

The images, which Black carefully examined, came from a single location inside Syria, and since more than half of the photographs were taken by a single cameraman, it is realistic to assume that they only represent a fraction of the regime’s victims. Yet even allowing for the fact that the images are just the “tip of the iceberg” in terms of prisoners killed by the regime since the uprising in Syria in 2011, the murders are still not on the scale of Auschwitz in size.

But Black’s comparison comes from the systematic nature of the torture and killing, what she calls the “incredible organization, the coordinated, cold blooded, efficiency” of the process of torture and death. It is this that she says bears the chilling resemblance to the Auschwitz example.

Black told me more than 60 percent of the bodies showed evidence of starvation, “not thin, but clinically starved so there is almost zero body fat.” She said ligature marks found on necks of victims indicated death by slow strangulation, with a garrote-type implement that resembled the fan belt on a car. Many bodies had been severely beaten, and some had their eyes gouged out. Others showed signs of electrocution, while some were burned.

“You do not starve quickly, it takes time,” she said. “Then there is the brutality of the beatings. But beyond that, there is the cost to the families of those young men. Like a stone thrown into the water, there is a ripple effect, it impacts on families, and beyond families onto an entire nation.”

The evidence provided by Caesar should increase the likelihood of Assad facing a war crimes tribunal – he is of course already facing investigation by war crimes prosecutors over the Sarin gas attack that killed up to 1,300 civilians last August. It has also lead to renewed calls for the West to finally act, and acknowledge that talk alone will not achieve its avowed aim of ending Assad rule.

But don’t hold your breath. For one thing, the United States has been aware of the Caesar images since last November. The British government couldn’t confirm when it first learnt of the photographs, but Foreign Secretary William Hague said they were “compelling and horrific,” and that the perpetrators must be held to account. But the reality is that the United Kingdom is compelled to do nothing.

Just four months ago parliament, which includes many of those expressing horror and faux sympathy last week – such as Labour leader Ed Miliband and his foreign affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander – led the parliamentary vote against British involvement in Syria.

The West balked at a meaningful display of its outrage at the use of chemical weapons and by doing so aided and abetted an evil regime, enabling it to carry out more atrocities. Other young men in the regime’s prisons will be tortured and starved and slowly murdered today or tomorrow, and their abused bodies will be photographed by other Caesars. We can blame the likes of Russia or Iran, but the truth is, many in the West do not care about Syria.

What the Red Army found at Auschwitz confirmed beyond doubt that World War II, the destruction of the Nazi regime, was a necessary and noble war. On a visit to Auschwitz in 2005, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney said: “The story of the camp reminds us that evil is real. It must be called by its name and must be confronted.”

Cheney’s words harken back to a time when the civilized world matched its words with deeds. Everyone agrees that the Caesar images reveal a deep-rooted evil. The failure to confront it today means that tyranny and fear is prevailing. As the 18th century statesman Edmund Burke succinctly put it: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

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 January 28, 2014, on page 7.