Saturday 25 February 2012

Syria: The Question of Intervention

Geoffrey Howard

Feb. 22, 2012, a house on fire after Syrian government shelling in Baba Amr, Homs province, Syria. (AP/Local Coordination Committees in Syria) CBS News
The appalling brutality of the Syrian regime has been laid bare over the past few weeks, with the siege of Homs claiming over 500 lives and leading to the start of a full-scale humanitarian crisis in the beleaguered opposition stronghold.  Syria’s 11-month old uprising grows more gruesome by the day.  Ban Ki Moon, the UN Secretary-General, said in New York: “I fear that the appalling brutality we are witnessing in Homs, with heavy weapons firing into civilian neighbourhoods, is a grim harbinger of things to come”. 

The past week has also, however, laid bare the complexity and political chicanery involved in international diplomacy and foreign policy.  In the context of such harrowing media news, Russia and China’s veto of the UN Security Council’s resolution struck many as not only cruel and selfish, but as the ‘green light’ that Assad needed to launch his attack on the opposition with a new and resolute cruelty.

However, we must not assume that the Security Council Resolution was the best thing for Syria. Its wording and intentions were extremely bold, promising to go far beyond the remit of sanctions or diplomatic pressure. The resolution demanded the withdrawal of the Syrian army from the streets with no parallel demand on armed rebel groups, with a provision for "further measures" in the event of "non-compliance", namely foreign military intervention. The resolution simply went far too far; essentially entailing regime change and sanctioning foreign military intervention.  Critics of Russia and China have been quick to question the motives of their decision without studying the substance of the resolution.  It has been surprising that little of the recent media coverage has touched upon the nature of the resolution itself and the enormity of the intrusion it would place upon another sovereign state.  These are important issues that should require a broader discussion, even when the country in question is being led by such a person as Assad. 

Syrian families gather at a shelter in Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs MSNBC
However, what is certainly most regrettable in this instance is that it is doubtful that China and Russia’s veto was a decision made with the best interests of the Syrian people at heart, but rather a geopolitical choice designed to ensure the survival of a Russian naval base in Tartus, a lucrative arms deal or a firmer presence in the region.  It would be hard to deny that the survival of Assad’s regime would be advantageous to both Moscow and Beijing.  Yet again, rival foreign powers are using the region as a geopolitical bargaining chip with little regard for the ensuing loss of life. 

It is deeply regrettable that Syria’s position as a strategic ally of Iran has turned a nation’s fight for political freedom into a highly toxic struggle between key global players.
In the face of such violence and brutality, arguing the case for non-intervention becomes increasingly difficult.  Indeed it appears that for many in the press and politics, intervention in the case of such a crisis becomes the knee-jerk logic. There have been increasing calls for intervention, especially following the failure of the UN resolution. U.S. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney commented "We definitely don't want to militarize the situation. But increasingly it looks like it may not be avoidable." The United Nations has also voiced plans to send observers into the country and the Saudis and Qataris are already reportedly arming and supporting the opposition.  There have also been suggestions that Turkey, with international support, could take a more central role, creating a buffer zone within Northern Syria for training and arming opposition forces.

An interesting article by Jonathan Freedland suggests that the opposition voiced by a number of people to liberal interventionism is an automatic reaction following the disastrous events of the 2003 Iraq war.  He believes that a blanket rejection of intervention in all cases is as dangerous as a blanket support of liberal interventionism. He may have a point.  However, if the case of Syria is viewed independently and dispassionately, it is clear that intervention poses serious risks.  In a country and a region that is such a fragile tinderbox, the slightest spark could prove destructive beyond belief. Indeed, the uprising is increasingly acquiring all of the dimensions of a sectarian conflict, as the largely Alawite security apparatus exploits minorities fears’ of a predominantly majority Sunni opposition.  We must allow the opposition to grow in strength and the regime to crumble from within.  This must be a time for change brought about by Syrians for Syria.  In such uncertain and unstable times, what is perhaps beyond doubt is that Assad has crossed a line from which there is no return.   

Thursday 23 February 2012

The Immunity Zone

Michael Young

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak believes that the oil embargo is not enough to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions. Lior Mizrahi/AFP/Getty Images.
On the 23rd January the EU finally agreed to a new round of sanctions to impose against Iran over its nuclear programme, this time specifically targeting the country’s lucrative oil industry. These have been the harshest sanctions yet – EU member states together import approximately one-fifth of total Iranian oil, and once the sanctions are fully implemented later in the year they are sure to make a significant dent in the Iranian economy. Shortly after the announcement of further sanctions, an essay by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman was published in the New York Times. After meeting with top Israeli officials in January, Bergman’s conclusion was clear: Israel IS going to launch a pre-emptive strike against Iran this year, and will probably do it this spring. 
According to Bergman, Israel has been asking itself three questions. One, does it have the ability to launch an attack, and protect itself from the counterattack? Two, have all diplomatic options been exhausted? And three, would Israel have the backing of the West if it were to launch an attack?
In regards to the first, Israel clearly has the technology and firepower available to launch an attack, however the issue would be defending the country from the hundreds of Iranian Shahab missiles that could easily be fired in the direction of Tel Aviv, not including the missiles that Hezbollah and Hamas could also launch. There has even been some speculation that Syria may feel compelled to back Iran. In regards to the second question, Israel would probably say that if the recent oil sanctions fail to make an impact, then all diplomatic options have been exhausted. 
The third question is the one that is most difficult to answer of all. If Israel were to strike Iran, what would be the reaction of allies such as the US and the UK?
Obama has recently said that it the US is working in ‘lockstep’ with Israel over Iran and will continue to support it, but that does not necessarily mean that if Israel chose to strike Iran tomorrow then the US would be right behind it. The incumbent president will have both eyes on popularity ratings until the November elections, and a military intervention in Iran is unlikely to go down well in Democrat strongholds. It is certainly the wrong time for the US to become embroiled in another war in the Middle East.
Iran’s Shahab-3 Missiles are well within range of Israel. FAS/Jane's Info Group.
But what does this mean for UK foreign policy?
Essentially, the government is able to take a back seat from now. The UK has played its part by being at the forefront of economic sanctions against Iran, and there is now little else it can do. Only time will tell whether the new sanctions will work, but it is of course quite possible that Israel will strike before they take full effect on July 1st (they would have been implemented sooner if it wasn’t for crisis-hit Greece relying on Iranian oil). 
In the meantime, Stop the War’s ‘Don’t Attack Iran’ campaign is gaining momentum. Various politicians and celebrities recently took to a podium outside the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square calling for the West not to intervene in a country where there is no proof of a nuclear weapons programme. The campaign highlights ten reasons why the UK should not intervene, notably pointing out that wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have all showed that intervention leads to high civilian casualties.
I share a similar view. Iran should be able to pursue a peaceful programme without Western interference. However, Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons would upset the balance of power in the region, and may fuel an arms race across the Middle East. Iran would also become untouchable – should it wish to torment its neighbours, it could do so without the threat of serious international condemnation as no state would be in a position to strategically argue with the regime. 
The ‘Immunity Zone’ is approaching. Israel believes that is has only nine months left to attack Iran, the US with their more advanced military forces have until mid-2013. Beyond that, Iran’s nuclear programme would be so advanced that a strike against it would be pointless – it would have reached ‘immunity’. The new sanctions will not come into full effect until July, which gives Iran five months to reassess the situation and hopefully come back to the negotiating table – the P5+1 talks would be a good start. It is now in Iran’s interest to open the dialogue with the West and resolve the issue for two main reasons – one, if the sanctions do have a serious economic impact then anti-Ahmadinejad protest could erupt across the country, threatening the regime. Two, Israel is serious about this – an anti-Iran sentiment is growing stronger, and some of the Israeli cabinet would not be shy of bombing Iran tomorrow.
The latest sanctions could be the last throw of the diplomatic dice. If crippling Iran’s economy does not make the regime submit to the demands of the West, it is hard to see what actually will. An attack on Iran will not stop its nuclear programme - if the regime is determined to acquire a nuclear weapon, it will succeed eventually. An attack would only delay the programme, and also make it more likely that it will want to use the weapon that it will develop. Not surprisingly, this is the biggest security dilemma that the West has faced in the Middle East since 2003.

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Controversy over MI6 Libya Torture Investigation Worsens

Jevon Whitby

 MI6 Building - Cadman - flickr

The ongoing controversy surrounding the metropolitan police's MI6 torture investigation was finally given a face last week, as the two men currently accusing the British security services, Sami al Saadi and Abdel Hakim Belhadj, named Sir Mark Allen as the senior officer responsible for  orchestrating their torture in Gaddafi's Libya in 2004.

Two fresh allegations have now developed from the discovered files of the defected ex-Libyan Intelligence Agency Chief Moussa Koussa. Embarrassingly, the revelation of the first British name comes less than three weeks since the investigation into MI6's conduct began, and coincides with the Ministry of Justice's attempts to request the controversial 'closedmaterial procedure' on sensitive case evidence, as was debated for the torture claims surrounding Bisher Al Rawi.

The accused, Sir Mark Allen, headed up the Secret Intelligence Service counter-terrorism unit in 2003/4, but resigned in 2004 after a failed bid to become head of MI6, moving to do lucrative work for BP in the Middle East. Despite his opposition of the Iraq war and the replacement head of MI6, Sir Mark was rumoured to be behind many secret deals with Libya, such as the release of Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi in August 2009. As the first such individual to be accused in the otherwise faceless torture investigation, he is expected to face a civil action for damages. Thus far he has declined to comment.

The new damning evidence has already drawn considerableinterest from civil rights campaigners. A letter from March 2004, allegedly from Sir Mark Allen himself, congratulates the Libyan Intelligence Agency on the safe arrival of Mr Belhadj and declares 'the intelligence on Abu Abd Allah [Mr Belhadj] was British.' Mr Belhadj, who now is now a commander for the Libyan rebels, claims his pregnant wife and children were included in the rendition to Gaddafi's Libya, away from international law, and that he was tied by the wrists and beaten whilst in the infamous Tajoura prison.

What will be the implications? Whilst the coalition has some insulation from the accusations on the grounds that the torture allegedly took place under a previous government, this is unlikely to be a distinction that will be noted in the international community. Complicity in torture (and collaboration with Gaddafi) is a stain that if true, will taint the reputation of Britain in general rather than that of a single party, despite the best public relations efforts to the contrary. As the current head of MI6, Sir John Sawers, declared in the service's official statement, MI6 will try to 'deal with the allegations' so that the UK can 'draw a line under them', but secret torture is a subject well suited to lasting international and media outrage.

A wounded prisoner of war inside a rebel run jail in Misrata, Libya © jeromestarkey: flickr
 In terms of foreign policy, the National Transitional Council are of course financially indebted to western allies and with Britain now politically invested in the 'new' Libya's success it is unlikely that the issue of past torture will truly drive a wedge between the two. However, expect the timing   to cause considerable diplomatic embarrassment and limit the opportunities of the current British government to trumpet the 'success' of their intervention into Libya. Mr Belhadj made the situation acutely awkward in a statement issued to Sky News, in which he insisted that the UK and Libya's future foreign relationship must 'start on a good footing' but requires 'justice for the crimes of the past.'

Ironically, the only partial saving grace for the British reputation may well result from the 'new' Libya's own improper conduct and alleged torture. Last week saw another embarrassing scandal emerge as U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay and Amnesty International have both claimed to have evidence of ex-Gadaffi loyalists being whipped and beaten by prison guards working for the National Transitional Council. Aid workers from the French charity, Medecins Sans Frontieres, halted its work in protest to the alleged torture of detainees by the new Libyan regime, again in the notorious Tajoura prison. Sadly, the new Libya will be preoccupied with its own torture accusations in the immediate future.

If anything, these cases form yet another strong argument against the use of torture in difficult international investigations into terrorism. As the Arab Spring has shown, secretly repressive governments in the Middle-East do not necessarily remain 'secret,' or indeed as 'governments.' Even if one is not morally opposed, it is now impossible to deny that condoning torture can do as much harm as good in the long term. Should the allegations be found to be true, Sir Mark Allen will personally pay the price, as could Britain and Libya's promising diplomatic relationship. Worse still, the investigation continues...