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.