Friday, 18 September 2015

Britain adds to the anti-ISIS futility

The Daily Star
Friday,September 18 2015
By Michael Glackin

A recent biography of British Prime Minister David Cameron revealed that the United Kingdom’s top soldier complained that discussing Syria with Cameron and his government in 2012 was rather like talking to children.
In colorful language, Gen. Sir David Richards, who was chief of defense staff at the time, said Cameron lacked “the balls” to put “boots on the ground” in Syria. He added that if Cameron had listened to him back then, ISIS would have effectively been strangled at birth.

On one level you can’t blame Cameron for not taking the general’s advice. Richards is one of those tipped to be heavily criticized when, and if, the long-delayed report of the Chilcot inquiry into British involvement in the Iraq war is ever published. And let’s face it, the British military made plenty of mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the general also has a point. While it’s impossible to say with any certainty that earlier intervention in Syria would have prevented the spread of ISIS, or the wider bloodbath of the last four years, standing on the sidelines has hardly proved a success.
Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed by the regime of President Bashar Assad in the last four years, while thousands more have perished at the hands of ISIS. Its affiliates have terrorized Europe, and the entire Middle East, from Tunisia to Yemen, has been destabilized. Western European unity is creaking under the weight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the turmoil and the human carnage.

Cameron’s “child-like” understanding of the Syrian crisis has been sorely tested in recent weeks as he faced intense scrutiny in the wake of the refugee crisis and following his announcement this month that a Royal Air Force drone had targeted and killed two British ISIS fighters near Raqqa in August. A third British extremist was killed in a U.S. airstrike at around the same time.
The U.K. has used killer drones in Afghanistan, a declared conflict zone. However, the attack in Syria was the first time it has deployed them in a country with which, and in which, the U.K. was not at war.

Cameron said the strikes were designed to foil terror attacks planned by the two men in the U.K. He insisted the action did not mark wider British involvement in coalition airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, a step that would require parliamentary approval. However, Cameron is poised to call a vote in Parliament within weeks in a bid to gain authorization to launch such airstrikes. He also warned last week that removing ISIS would require “not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy, but will on occasion require hard military force.”

There is nothing really new in this. Cameron has been keen to expand British airstrikes to Syria for some time. Along with the killing of the two British ISIS fighters, Royal Air Force personnel have already taken part in bombing raids over the country while embedded with U.S. and Canadian forces.

This partly marks a belief within the intelligence services that terror attacks, such as the one that took place in Sousse in Tunisia in June in which 30 Britons were killed, are being planned in Raqqa – although the Tunisian shooting clearly owes more to Libyan instability than to events in Syria.

But the sudden step-up in rhetoric is also a knee-jerk reaction to the refugee crisis engulfing Western Europe. The British chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, Cameron’s effective deputy, said the only way to stop the flow of refugees was to end the Syrian conflict. Though his comment avoided the war in Iraq and the terrible state of Libya and Afghanistan, it was belated recognition that the Syrian civil war has reached a stalemate.

In a move to break the stalemate, and amid what is clearly a buildup of Russian troops in Syria, Cameron’s big idea is centered on the U.K.’s extending its military strikes against the “controlling brains” of ISIS, alongside a diplomatic push with Iran and Russia that would see Assad remain in power for a transitional period of six months while some form of national government can be formed to take power.

Whether Iran and Russia are ready to consign Assad to the dustbin of history remains questionable. Both are deeply suspicious that the West could use military action against ISIS as cover for removing Assad. Hence British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond’s bizarre comment that RAF airstrikes in Syria would be prohibited from targeting areas where the civil war is raging.

The caveats are fast diluting an already watered-down strategy that looks as ill conceived as Cameron’s last failed attempt to get parliamentary approval for British airstrikes in Syria two years ago. That time Assad was the target, this time he looks set to be the beneficiary.

But the real question is whether the military action being considered against ISIS will have any practical impact. The largely token U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS, supported by a handful of RAF Tornados and even smaller contingents from other Western and Arab nations, have contained some ISIS activities, but have had little real impact on its murderous acts.

ISIS may now control marginally less territory, but despite the airstrikes it has still been able to capture key cities, most notably Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq. Dropping a few more bombs on ISIS in Syria is no substitute for a military strategy to eradicate its evil. To paraphrase General Richards, despite the tough talk, Cameron is still lacking in the cojones department.

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 18, 2015.

Friday, 4 September 2015

On and on the Chilcot inquiry goes

The Daily Star
Friday, September 4 2015
By Michael Glackin

It’s hard to imagine that the long-running government inquiry into why the United Kingdom went to war in Iraq in 2003 could descend into greater absurdity. But, gentle reader, it has.

The Chilcot inquiry, led by career civil servant Sir John Chilcot, was charged with finding out what went wrong with the prewar intelligence analysis and post-invasion planning in Iraq, and identify “what lessons could be learned.” The inquiry, which began its deliberations in 2009 and finished taking evidence in February 2011, is now in its sixth year, and there appears to be no prospect of it ever being completed.

Last week the government was forced to deny it was launching an inquiry into why the inquiry was taking so long. That followed the revelation that a number of those criticized in Chilcot’s draft report are trying to get the criticism expunged on the basis that their “human rights” will be violated by the inquiry’s findings.

This sordid move, by those whose actions led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocents and resulted in the real violation of the human rights of many more, stems from a fear that Chilcot’s final report could leave them vulnerable to prosecution under the Human Rights Act or some other international legal proceedings.

The shameful maneuver reminded me of the words of the 18th-century satirist Jonathan Swift, the author “Gulliver’s Travels,” who said: “I never wonder to see men wicked, but I often wonder to see them not ashamed.”

It is understood that two of the most senior military and intelligence figures facing criticism in the report are Gen. Sir Nick Houghton, the current chief of the defense staff, who was a senior officer in Baghdad, and Sir Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, who was largely responsible for the now infamous “dodgy dossier” on Iraq’s military capability.

Politicians expecting criticism include former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, both in power at the time of the invasion. Inquiry sources have indicated that the conduct of former Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon and former International Development Secretary Clare Short will also be mentioned.

Prime Minister David Cameron called on Chilcot to set a timetable for publication of report. Cameron is keen to get the report published partly because it will criticize a Labour government, but also because senior colleagues have warned him he cannot contemplate a parliamentary vote to expand Britain’s bombing raids against ISIS targets in Syria unless the lessons of Iraq have been fully aired and the public sees they will be learned.

But Chilcot continues to insist his report, which is thought to run to more than 1 million words, is still “not ready.” The glacial pace of Chilcot’s inquiry has been brought to a complete stop by the so-called “Maxwellization” process – a convention by which witnesses to an inquiry are informed of criticism in advance and given the chance to respond.

This dubious process has been going on for at least a year and there is still no end in sight. It is stating the obvious to say that Maxwellization defeats the purpose of any inquiry, which must surely be about finding out what happened without fear or favor. The continuing delays caused by granting key figures a right of reply means the Chilcot inquiry has now become tainted by the same suspicion of cover-up as the war itself.

The U.K.’s former top prosecution lawyer, Lord Macdonald, succinctly summed up the problem recently when he said that the decision to offer a right of reply was “gifting the prize of control over the inquiry’s timetable to its subjects.”

Effectively what has happened is that the people who are most responsible for the debacle in Iraq have been allowed to hijack the inquiry and abuse a dubious convention to amend its findings and protect their reputations. Ironically, the process of Maxwellization takes its name from the newspaper owner and one-time Labour parliamentarian Robert Maxwell, who in 1971 was criticized in a government report as unfit to exercise “proper stewardship” of a public quoted company. Maxwell went to court insisting he had not been allowed to respond to the criticism before the report was published. The judge said the government had “virtually committed the business murder” of Maxwell, and from then on inquiries began to give prior notice of critical findings in advance.

But more importantly, the British Court of Appeal in 1974 overruled Maxwell’s initial court victory and stated it was not necessary for those conducting inquiries “to put their tentative conclusions to the witnesses in order to give them an opportunity to refute them.” So why on Earth has this sordid process been used so extensively in Chilcot’s inquiry?

Small wonder families of British soldiers killed in Iraq are threatening to take legal action against Chilcot if he fails to publish his findings by the end of this year. Chilcot is due to contact the families of dead soldiers, and is expected to tell them he will not be able to publish his report until next year at the earliest. Even then his final report will not reveal the names of those who have used Maxwellization, nor will we know to what extent Chilcot has diluted his findings in response to their objections. Think about that.

It means we will have spent over six years and $16 million on an inquiry that is patently incapable of revealing the entire truth behind what is considered to be the most colossal British foreign policy blunder in modern history. Not even the playwright Samuel Becket could have imagined a more absurd scenario.

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