Friday 27 November 2015

Syria: Why I am a reluctant bomber

In the interests of taste and decency, let us look away from the gruesome spectacle of the civil war that has engulfed the Labour party and concentrate instead on the far more serious conflict in Syria. So here are some questions that you might like to ask yourself (with my answers) before you decide whether you agree with David Cameron that the UK should now join the international military action against IS in Syria.

1. Is IS a direct threat to the UK? My answer: Yes. What happened in Paris two weeks ago could happen here tomorrow. Several hundred British citizens are believed to have gone to Syria to join IS; according to Mr Cameron, about half of them have returned. The PM also says that over the past 12 months, police and security services have disrupted seven terrorist plots "either linked to ISIL, or inspired by ISIL's propaganda".

2. So won't joining the military action against IS make the UK even more of a target and increase the threat to British citizens? My answer: No. The UK is already a prime target.

3. Will it make the UK safer? My answer: Possibly, if it discourages young Muslims from travelling to Syria to join IS, and if it forces the group's leaders to scatter, making it more difficult for them to coordinate attacks. Cutting their supply lines and hitting the oil facilities they have captured could have an effect. It could also have little or no effect.

4. Is IS a threat to the region and therefore an indirect threat to the rest of the world? My answer: Yes. In the words of UN security council resolution 2249, passed unanimously a week ago: "The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security." The resolution called on all UN member states "to use all necessary measures to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL and to eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria."

5. Can IS be defeated militarily? My answer: No. As experience in Afghanistan has amply demonstrated, defeating a terrorist group by military means is an impossibility. The US-led air campaign against IS in Syria has already conducted more than 2,500 attacks, with relatively little to show for it. Mr Cameron acknowledged as much in his 36-page response to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs select committee: "The objective of our counter-ISIL campaign is to degrade ISIL’s capabilities so that it no longer presents a significant … threat." Note the operative word: "degrade", rather than "defeat" or "destroy".

6. So at what point would any UK military action cease? My answer: That's a very good question. The implication in Mr Cameron's statement is that a campaign of air attacks would lead to an accelerated political process in which "moderate" opposition groups would be strengthened and President Bashar al-Assad would be encouraged to step down as part of a transition to a more democratic Syria. That seems a huge leap of faith.

7. Isn't there a real risk that the UK would do more harm than good by joining the military campaign? My answer: I doubt it. UK involvement is unlikely to be a game-changer, despite the prime minister's claim that the UK has "world-leading military capabilities to contribute, which many other countries do not possess."

8.  What is the strongest reason for UK joining the military action? My answer: It would demonstrate that we remain part of a global community that has come together in a way not seen since the international action against Saddam Hussein following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. A coalition that includes the US, Russia, France, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey cannot easily be dismissed as simply a rerun of the US-led coalition against Saddam in 2003. And to ignore a direct appeal from France, our closest European neighbour, would inevitably be seen as turning our backs on a neighbour in need.

9. What is the strongest reason against the UK joining? My answer: I recognise that our experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, where we bombed the bad guys only to find that more bad guys emerged from the rubble, is not exactly encouraging. On the other hand, military interventions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone did have positive outcomes.

10. Why should we believe anything that Cameron says, given that it's presumably based on extensive briefings from the security services, who were so catastrophically wrong about Iraq in 2003? My answer: because this time, unlike when the debate was about whether Saddam was developing weapons of mass destruction, no one is arguing that IS is not a real threat or doesn't really exist. The only debate is over how best to confront the threat.

So how would I vote if I were an MP? I'd vote Yes -- but with a very heavy heart.

Friday 20 November 2015

Paris: a few home truths

Why do we insist on ignoring what stares us in the face? The suicidal fanatics who threaten to kill us in the name of their perverted brand of Islam are not refugees from Syria, or deranged zealots from the mountains of Pakistan: they are, with only very few exceptions, men and women who were born in our hospitals, educated in our schools and who grew up in our cities.

The men who carried out the attacks in London in 2005 were born and raised in Leeds, Bradford, and Huddersfield. The men alleged to have carried out the Paris attacks last week were born and raised in Belgium and France. The men who murdered Lee Rigby two years ago were both born in London to Christian parents from Nigeria. 

Many of the attackers were already known to the police. Some had records as petty criminals. Others had clear links to identifiable terrorist groups. So as we still struggle to comprehend the crime that was committed in Paris last Friday night, perhaps we should start by examining what is going on under our noses.

That means asking difficult questions about why some young men growing up in Europe feel so alienated from the society in which they live that they want to destroy both it and themselves. In particular, it means thinking about the way our leaders use words like "we" and "they".  The scholar Ian Buruma put it admirably: "We know that a dangerous minority of young people are attracted by reasons to die. What is needed badly is a superior reason to live."

It might also be useful to acknowledge the past. In the words of the Harvard professor Stephen Walt: "Decades of misguided U.S. and European policies have left many people in the Arab and Islamic world deeply angry at and resentful toward the West. Those policies include the West’s cozy coddling of various Arab dictators, its blind support for Israel’s brutal policies toward the Palestinians, and its own willingness to wage air campaigns, employ sanctions, or invade Middle Eastern countries whenever it thinks doing so suits its short-term interest."

But this is at best a partial explanation, because it fails to address the very obvious fact that the jihadi phenomenon is also a real threat to people and places far beyond the shores of Europe and the US. The simply stated goal of the killers is to force everyone, wherever they live, to bow to their will. 

Ask the people of Bangladesh, Egypt, Kenya, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Mali, Nigeria, Pakistan (have we really forgotten the attack in Peshawar less than a year ago, when 130 schoolchildren were massacred?), Russia, Tunisia, Turkey and Yemen, all of whom have suffered grievously at the hands of jihadi zealots. And ask the people of Raqqa in Syria what it is like to live under the rule of these brutal fanatics.

So what can we do to confront the danger? Here is my 10-point plan:

1. Improve the way our intelligence services process the information that is already available to them. (I am not convinced that they need extra powers, although see 4. below.) They seem to be pretty good at identifying potential threats; they are not so good at keeping a close eye on them. Five of the Paris suspects are thought to have fought for IS in Syria before returning to Europe, so why were they still able to plan and carry out their attacks?

If that means increasing the intelligence services' budgets so that they can take on more staff, then let's increase their budgets. The more data they collect, the harder it will be to sift what matters from what doesn't. If it were up to me, I would abandon both the British and the French nuclear weapons programmes and concentrate resources on defence against today's threats, not those of 50 years ago.

2. Have a long, frank talk to the security authorities in Belgium, which is emerging as the weakest link in Europe's anti-terrorism campaign. According to the Brussels-based analyst Bilal Benyaich: "Brussels is a black hole in Europe’s anti-radicalisation policy. It is easier for people with bad intentions — be they criminal, mafia, or terrorist — to live life under the radar here than in any other major European city."

3. Keep a much closer eye on what is going on in Europe's jails. Prisons and the internet are the two key drivers in what is known as "radicalisation", the process by which vulnerable, confused young men can be turned into suicidal killers.

4. Look again at the way encrypted social media and instant messaging technology can be exploited by terrorist groups. I am deeply reluctant to allow the State any further access to our private communications, but we need to be clear-headed: if fanatics are planning massacres undetected because the authorities can't decrypt their communications, we need to deal with that.

5. Similarly, the EU should suspend the Schengen open-borders regime that enabled the Paris killers to cross back and forth between France and Belgium without anyone noticing. It will be a huge nuisance to millions of travellers, as well as damaging to EU trade, but I suspect the families of those who were killed in Paris will regard it as a price worth paying if it helps to prevent future attacks.

6. The UK should join any EU or NATO military action aimed at weakening the IS in Syria and Iraq. That means principally cutting off its supply lines and access to revenues from illicit oil sales (currently running at an estimated $1.5 million per day), something that should have been done months ago.

7. Put pressure on Turkey to stop attacking Kurdish units who are fighting IS on the ground and tighten up its border controls to stop the flow of personnel and supplies to IS units in Syria. Remind President Erdogan that France is a fellow-NATO member and deserves full support from Ankara.

8. Make it crystal clear to the rulers and clerics of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states that they need to dissociate themselves in both word and deed from the groups responsible for bringing so much misery to so many people. The growth of IS is in part a result of the proxy war for regional supremacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it has profound security implications for the rest of the world.

9. Intensify diplomatic efforts together with Russia and Iran to forge a ceasefire in Syria leading to a transition to a post-Assad future. The downing of the Russian plane in Egypt last month means the prospects for diplomatic progress are now better than for a very long time.

10. Resolve not to fall into the jihadis' trap. They want to create an unbridgeable rift between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between their brand of Islam and all others, including Shi'ism. We should do the opposite: build bridges, strengthen ties, create alliances.

The French journalist Nicolas Hénin, who spent 10 months as an IS hostage in Syria, described his captors as "street kids drunk on ideology and power". "Everything convinces them that they are on the right path and, specifically, that there is a kind of apocalyptic process under way that will lead to a confrontation between an army of Muslims from all over the world and others, the crusaders, the Romans. They see everything as moving us down that road."

He also wrote: "They will be heartened by every sign of overreaction, of division, of fear, of racism, of xenophobia … Central to their world view is the belief that communities cannot live together with Muslims, and every day their antennae will be tuned towards finding supporting evidence."

Our goal, surely, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, must be to prove them wrong.

Friday 6 November 2015

A win for Sisi

In considering the visit to London of the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, I can do no better than to quote the words of Amnesty International in its most recent report on Egypt:

"The [past] year saw a continued dramatic deterioration in human rights following the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. The government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly. Thousands were arrested and detained as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent, with some detainees subjected to enforced disappearance.

"The Muslim Brotherhood remained banned and its leaders were detained and jailed. Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained routine and was committed with impunity. Hundreds were sentenced to prison terms or to death after grossly unfair trials. Security forces used excessive force against protesters and committed unlawful killings with impunity.

"Women faced discrimination and violence. Some refugees were forcibly returned. Forced evictions continued. Dozens of people faced arrest and prosecution for their sexual orientation or identity. Courts imposed hundreds of death sentences; the first executions since 2011 were carried out in June."

What impressive dexterity our prime minister is demonstrating. In February 2011, there he was, grandstanding in Tahrir Square, celebrating with Egypt's pro-democracy activists the overthrow of the country's former leader, Hosni Mubarak. And here he is now, less than five years later, warmly welcoming Mubarak's successor, the former field marshal who seized power in a coup that ended Egypt's imperfect experiment with democracy.

To many Egyptians, Sisi is even worse than Mubarak. According to a new report by the Geneva-based human rights organisation Alkarama, more than 320 people have died in Egyptian jails since the military coup in July 2013,  “direct consequences of torture, ill-treatment or denial of medical care." More than 1,000 people were killed during the protests that followed the coup.

And yet. When Egyptians look at what has happened in Libya and Syria, many will conclude that they would rather stick with Sisi. For the region as a whole, as well as for the Western powers, a military-backed autocrat may look far preferable to the terror of IS. It is also far from irrelevant that Israel depends on Egyptian cooperation to keep Hamas bottled up in Gaza.

Egypt is by far the most important Arab nation in terms of size and population. There are more people living in Cairo alone than in all of Libya. It would be in no one's interests -- least of all its own people's -- for it to descend into anarchy, and the brief rule of the Muslim Brotherhood's President Morsi was hardly an example of liberal democracy in action.

It's only a couple of weeks since President Xi Jinping of China was in town, so there was barely time to get the red carpet cleaned. Perhaps Downing Street should get a new one made: it could have the words "raison d'état" embroided in silk thread along its entire length. Dictionary definition: "a purely political reason for action on the part of a ruler or government, especially where a departure from openness, justice, or honesty is involved." Which seems to sum it up perfectly.

President Xi was here because he brought with him the promise to invest billions in the UK economy; President Sisi followed in his footsteps because he brought the promise of cooperation in a confrontation with jihadi groups that Mr Cameron has called "a generational struggle against a poisonous and extremist ideology." Plus, of course, the prospect of some more orders for British-made weaponry.

How horribly embarrassing, therefore, that on the eve of Sisi's arrival, the UK in effect accused Egypt of such ropey security procedures at Sharm el-Sheikh airport that they somehow allowed a bomb to be smuggled on board a Russian plane, causing it to explode with the loss of 224 lives. As a result, some 20,000 British holidaymakers were left stranded when all British flights to and from the airport were suspended.

In a BBC interview this week, President Sisi insisted that he has "a roadmap for real democracy in Egypt" and that it will be for Egyptians to decide what role, if any, the banned Muslim Brotherhood should have in the country's future.

That will be hard to believe for the thousands of Brotherhood supporters currently languishing in Egypt's dismal jails -- and even harder to believe for 28-year-old Sondos Asem, who was foreign media spokeswoman for the Brotherhood during the ill-fated reign of President Mohamed Morsi and who was sentenced to death in her absence last May.

Talking to world leaders -- even world leaders with blood on their hands -- is part of the job description when you move into 10 Downing Street. Saying nothing publicly, or nothing meaningful, about their worst excesses is not. So next time Mr Cameron hosts a leader with a woeful human rights record, perhaps he could bring himself to say something about it. In public.

Then we could at least try to convince democracy activists, whether in China, Egypt, or elsewhere, that we are not ignoring them. I'm sure they would appreciate it.