Middle East Monitor Conference – Sunni/Shia 18 November 2017

Middle East Monitor

“Crisis in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s Attempts at Realignment”

183 Euston Road, Bloomsbury, NW1 2BE

18 November – 1015

Key Note speech by Paddy Ashdown

In foreign affairs, having a flawed model for viewing the world is nearly always the prelude to having flawed policies which end in failure.

The West cannot shake itself from the view that we still rule the world as we have done these last 400 years – since days of the Ottoman Empire. So we think everything that happens in the world is about us, the things that are important in the world are only important because they affect us and that anywhere there is a problem in the world, we can solve it.

There used to be an Arabic saying: “If a dog barks in the Middle East, British intelligence is behind it”. This is how it was and this is how, replacing British with American of course, we in the West think it still is.

But it isn’t. There were many, many casualties in the wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. One of them was the myth of Western omnipotence and the utility of having a West centric view of all that happens in the world.

For four years now – perhaps a bit longer – many of us have been warning that the greatest threat to world peace coming out of the Middle East, was not jihadist terrorism, but the danger of a wider Sunni-Shia religious conflict, similar the Wars of Religion which engulfed Europe in the 17th century. And that the terrorist insurgencies in Iraq, Syria, Mali, Yemen, Lebanon and the wider world of Islam should not been seen as individual conflicts, but as part of and preludes to, this larger confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The radicalisation of the “Sunni Umma” promoted, assisted and funded by Saud Arabian and Gulf elements, if not specifically by their Governments, is not any longer targeted on us in the West as we liked to believe. Its real target is, no longer the Great Satan in Washington, but the Great Heretic in Tehran. Attacks on Washington, London and Madrid are merely a proxy to help win support for that wider conflict.

I know it is hurtful to Western pride to think that these attacks on our cities were mere collateral damage. It is difficult for us to accept that we are not the main event here, only the hors d’oeuvre. But that is how it is.

Of course this is not to diminish the threat to us here in London – or to suggest that we should not have been taking this seriously. Terrorism in the name of radical Islam is a real and present threat. Collateral casualties, are no less casualties. As the innocents of Yemen, Iraq and Syria know so miserably well. The casualties of the bomb outrages in Western cities and the dead from the indiscriminate bombing of crowded suburbs in Sanaa are victims of the same event – the struggle between Sunni and Shia which now stands on the edge of open conflict.

A word about the role of religion in these kind conflicts. Of course I do not in any way doubt the sincerity of those who feel deeply – even violently – about the differences between the two great branches of Islam. I have personal experience of those kind of hates in Northern Ireland and in Bosnia. These sentiments may be odious, but amongst most ordinary people they are sincerely felt. My quarrel lies less with the misguided individuals who feel driven to be the actors in these tragedies, than with those behind them who use religion to drive the conflict. The reality is that in almost all great so-called religious conflicts, what lies behind the shouting of the clerics is a contest between the power of nations.

It was surely obvious to any sharp eyed observer with any knowledge of the Middle East that the moment that matters in the region ceased to be determined in the capitals of the great western powers, a contest for who was up and who was down would ensue.

And that contest was likely to be between Riyadh and Tehran – and the vehicle, motivator and driver for that contest would be religion; just as it was in Europe in the 17th century, just as it has been in so many conflicts that I have been involved in – from Far East, to Northern Ireland, to Bosnia.

This particular contest of power has been a long time coming. It has been building up strength, followers and causes through the proxy wars in Iraq and Syria, the proxy insurgencies in Mali, Libya and Yemen and the proxy terrorist outrages in major Western capitals. Left unchecked, as it has been, there was always going to be a moment when this would turn from something behind the scenes and below the surface, to something open and right in front of us.

The sudden seriousness with which Washington has woken up to what has happened recently in Lebanon, having been completely asleep to what was happening in Yemen, seems to indicate that that moment is very near.

So why should this bother us in Britain? Haven’t we got enough on our plate fighting our own war with the EU? Is this not just another far away country of which we know little, to adapt Chamberlain’s infamous phrase.

No it is not – it is definitely not.

A regional proxy conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, fired up by religious contention, is already sowing little wars around the region. If this finally breaks out into something which directly engages the two contesting capitals then I think we would see a threat to the wider peace of at least the same magnitude as the tensions surrounding North Korea, especially if, as seems almost certain, Israel becomes involved.

Mao Tse Tung famously called the two great World Wars of the last century “The European Civil Wars”.

It is not an inaccurate or inappropriate description.

For it reminds us that, in our deeply interconnected world, regional conflicts can have global consequences.

Three years ago I suggested that the right way to view the conflicts in Syria and Iraq were through the Sunni/Shia prism.

That the wars in Syria and Iraq could neither be solved nor ended by high explosive alone.

That what we needed was a Dayton style International Treaty safeguarding existing borders.

That this should involve regional players across the Sunni/Shai divide and be underpinned by Russia, the US and Europe acting as guarantor powers.

That Russia had too much interest in the area because of Sunni radicalism in their own Islamic republics, not to join a wider coalition to destroy ISIL

That if this did not happen, they would, inevitably and unilaterally, join Tehran and suppress with bombs what they did not have the opportunity to contain with diplomacy.

That what would follow would be a deepening of local conflicts and a heightening of Riyadh/ Tehran tensions

That the West would get dragged in to support one side – and Russia would get dragged in to support the other.

And that this would in the end fire-up a regional conflict in the Middle East which would have global consequences

It gives me no pleasure to say that this is exactly what has now happened.

We are very close now to a Sunni/Shia conflict with great power involvement on opposite sides.

If that does not strike a shiver down your back-bone, then you have not spent enough time studying history.

A lesson I learnt in both Northern Ireland and Bosnia is that even though it is necessary to constantly press for peace, peace cannot be achieved until the warring parties are willing and the right external conditions are in place. The right context – maybe the only context for a sustainable peace in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere in the Middle East, is some kind of accommodation between Riyadh and Tehran.

I do not know whether, this late in the game, this is any longer possible.

I do not know, whether having been so deeply invested on the ground for so long, President Putin would see it any longer in his interest to play a constructive role in the process.

I do not know whether President Trump, whose seems incapable of resisting any opportunity for a dog-fight, has the strategic vision to see that this kind of diplomatic engagement is in Washington’s interest.

I do not know whether Brussels, now so internally obsessed with its own problems, is able to expend energy and political will on anything else.

But I am pretty certain that, absent this kind of vision and engagement, what has been these last two decades an extremely turbulent Middle East, could, if the Sunni Shia contest continues, quickly become something even more dangerous – something which Mao Tse Tong would have recognised very well – a regional conflict which would threaten the wider peace.

There is much about the piles of tinder scattered around the Middle East today which remind me of the Balkans in 1914.

So what should the policies of the western nations be to the impending danger?

If it is the case that the greatest danger to world peace coming out of the Middle East at present is not jihadist terrorism, but an open regional war between the imperial ambitions of Saud Arabia and Iran, then the right policy for the western nations is scrupulously not to take sides.

We should have good and normal relations with countries across the divide and treat them exactly the same.

If they sponsor terrorism we should strongly oppose their policies by all means possible, rather than turn a blind eye for short term convenience.

If they are engaged in proxy conflicts we should not throw fuel onto the fire by supporting one side against, above all with weapons.

If they commit war crimes we should condemn this even handedly.

We should strive by every means possible to encourage dialogue and agreement and take care to take no steps which will deepen the divide between both sides.

We should above all avoid any step which propels events further down the track we are already far advanced on, where the West supports one side – the Sunnis – encouraging Russia to take up arms in support of the other – the Shias. This is the outcome of greatest danger and we are very, very close to it.

So now we come to Britain and Saudi Arabia, especially in the context of the rolling tragedy of Yemen.

From a moral point of view Britain’s support of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen is as foolish as it is reprehensible.

It is very clear that war crimes have been committed in the conflict in Yemen, both in relation to indiscriminate attacks on civilians and by using aid and starvation as a weapon of war. Britain’s silence on these matters is thunderous and shaming.

The fact that we are supplying arms to Saudi Arabia is even more so.

The Government tells us that no weapons supplied by Britain have been used in this war. As someone who knows a little about the temptations and confusions of war, I simply do not believe this.

The Government should announce an immediate suspension of arms sales to Riyadh until their blockade of aid supplies is lifted and their indiscriminate bombing of civilians is ended.

I know enough of these kind of conflicts to understand that crimes are likely to be being committed by both sides in these kind of dirty wars. I am sure that it is true, for instance the Houthi rebels in Yemen, are also guilty of using aid and hunger as a weapon of war.

But the difference is that we do not support them, whereas Riyadh is an ally and one to whom we supply weapons of war.

I am not so naïve as not to understand the other factors involved here. Trade at a time when, thanks to the folly of Brexit we have a desperate urgency to grow our foreign trade quickly. Assistance in the struggle against terror, which far too often causes us to turn a convenient blind eye to human rights abuses in those countries which are our allies. Maintaining a balance in the Middle east broadly favourable to the west. The threat of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region.

I doubt whether bending our principles in favour of short-term advantage on all of these fronts will deliver anything of use to us in the long term.

But even if it were to do so, such hopeful outcomes, if and when they arrive would have long ago been blotted out by the horrors of a widening religious war into which the great powers of our day allow themselves to be dragged in support of one side or another.

That is the danger that now confronts us and it is time that the world’s statesmen and women alerted themselves to it.


The Sunni-Shia danger toward peace


Article by Paddy Ashdown

Independent Friday 17 November

Based on a speech to be delivered for Middle East Monitor Conference 1015 18 November

They used to say in the Middle East: “If a dog barks in the Middle East, British intelligence is behind it”. Replace the word “British” with “American”, and we think that’s still true.

But it isn’t. There were many casualties in the wars of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. One of them was the myth of Western omnipotence.

The greatest threat to world peace coming out of the Middle East now, is not, as we think, terrorism, but the danger of a wider Sunni-Shia religious conflict into which the great powers are dragged.

The radicalisation of Sunni Islam, funded from Saud Arabian and the Gulf is not any longer targeted on us in the West. Its real target is not the Great Satan in Washington, but the Great Heretic in Tehran.

The terrorist attacks on our cities are not the real war, but collateral damage in a wider conflict.

This is not to diminish the threat to us here in London – or to suggest that we should not have been taking this seriously. The collateral dead, are no less dead- as the innocents of Yemen, Iraq and Syria know so miserably well.

The casualties of the bomb outrages in Western cities and the maimed and injured from the indiscriminate bombing of crowded Sanaa suburbs are victims of the same war – the struggle between Sunni and Shia which now stands on the edge of open conflict.

This is not really about religion, any more than the wars of religion of the 17th century, or the conflict in Northern Ireland, or the bloodshed in Bosnia were. In almost all great so-called religious conflicts, what lies behind the shouting of the clerics is a contest between the power of nations.

This one is, in reality, a contest for dominance in the Middle East between Riyadh and Tehran.

And its been a long time coming. It has been building up strength, followers and causes through the proxy wars in Iraq and Syria, the proxy insurgencies in Mali, Libya and Yemen and the proxy terrorist outrages in major Western capitals.

So why should this bother Britain? Haven’t we got enough on our plate fighting our own war with the EU? Is this not just another far away country of which we know little, to adapt Chamberlain’s infamous phrase?

No, it is definitely not.

A regional conflict between Riyadh and Tehran, fired up by religious contention and supported by Russia on one side and the West of the other poses a threat to world peace at least as great as North Korea, especially if, as seems almost certain, Israel becomes involved.

Mao Tse Tung famously called the two great World Wars of the last century “The European Civil Wars”.

It is not an inaccurate description. For it reminds us that regional conflicts can have global consequences.

If that does not strike a shiver down your back-bone, then you have not spent enough time studying history.

There is much about the piles of tinder scattered around the Middle East today which remind me of the Balkans in 1914.

So what should the policy of the western nations be to the impending danger?

The answer is simple. Don’t take sides.

We should have good relations with countries across the divide and treat them exactly the same.

If they sponsor terrorism we should ruthlessly expose them, rather than turning a blind eye for short term convenience.

If they engage in proxy conflicts we should not throw fuel onto the fire by supporting one side against the other, above all with weapons.

If they commit war crimes we should condemn them even handedly.

We should strive constantly to encourage dialogue between them.

We should avoid any step in which we in the West supports one side – the Sunnis – and Russia supports the other – the Shias. This is the greatest danger and we are very, very close to it.

Which brings us to Britain, Saudi Arabia and the Yemen.

Britain’s support of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen is as foolish as it is reprehensible.

The indiscriminate Saudi bombing of civilians and the use of starvation as a weapon of war are illegal under international law. Britain’s silence on these war crimes is thunderous and shaming.

The fact that we are supplying arms to Saudi Arabia is even more so.

The Government tells us that no British weapons are being used. I know a little about the temptations and confusions of war and I simply do not believe this.

The Government should announce an immediate suspension of arms sales to Riyadh until their blockade of aid supplies is lifted and their indiscriminate bombing of civilians is ended.

I understand that crimes are committed by both sides in these dirty wars. The Houthi rebels in Yemen are doubtless also using aid and hunger as weapons of war.

But they are not an ally to whom we supply weapons and for whose actions we therefore bear responsibility. Riyadh is.

I know other things are involved here; trade, the struggle against terror, maintaining Western influence, nuclear proliferation.

I doubt whether bending our principles in favour of short-term advantage on these fronts will deliver anything of use to us in the long term. It never has before.

But such hopeful outcomes, if and when they arrive would have long ago been blotted out by the horrors of a widening religious war into which the great powers have been dragged.

That is the danger that now confronts us.


Syria The Times 30 May 2012

Syria The Times  30 May 2012


The slaughter of the innocents in Syria is, of course, horrific, barbaric, shocking, terrifying medieval, bestial — choose your own adjective; they’ve all been used – some many times over. In our attempts to camouflage impotence we are now devaluing hyperbole.


I do not complain about this. It is what we expect from our elected Western leaders. They have to represent populations who still remain, for all our diminished power, the world’s centre of righteous moral indignation — the natural habitat of the Something Must Be Done brigade, stretching (as it does these days) from the concerned public citizen, to Mr John Humphrys on the BBC’s Today programme.


None of this is wrong, none of it misplaced and none of it inappropriate. It is necessary to be outraged and concerned.


But it is not sufficient. With the West’s moral force in tatters after the blunders of Iraq and Afghanistan and military budgets so shrunk that we can no longer enforce our global morality at the point of a bayonet, we have to learn to be, not just concerned, but canny too if we are to get our way.


I thought we had learnt that lesson in Libya. But Syria suggests that we have not.


In Libya we in the West seemed to understand how the world had changed. Why the old glad confident days when we could, as in Iraq, treat the UN Security Council with cavalier disregard, were over (and a good thing too, some would say – though not I suspect in the beleaguered towns of Homs and Houla). That in future, international action meant a Security Council resolution, with all that entails for the enhanced power of Russian and Chinese vetoes. That the best way to avoid this was not for the West to front up the action, but to support and assist others (in Libya’s case the Arabs) to do so . The effect of making action in Libya an Arab call, not a Western one made it much more difficult for the Russians to say no — and in the end they didn’t.


Western diplomacy should have learnt lessons from this. First, that more than ever before, the crucial diplomatic battlefield is the UN Security Council. If you can’t make it happen there, you can’t make it happen.


Second, making it happen there is not always best served by the West out in front brandishing the sword of a morality and making demands for regime change which Russia and China can easily mis-represent as just a modern version of old imperialism.


Finally, we in the West should have learnt from Libya that to get things done means creating coalitions beyond the cosy circle of the Atlantic club.


Instead of building on those lessons we seem sadly, and stupidly, to have reverted to type in Syria. Instead of quietly standing back and letting the Arabs and the regional powers lead the call for action, Western leaders from Hilary Clinton through to newly arrived Président Francois Hollande, just could not resist donning the armour of moral outrage and leading the charge. Instead of making it more difficult for Russia to say “no”, they have made it easier. And overlooked the central role that Turkey could have played as a regional leader in putting together a coalition for action which the West could have found it easy to back and Russians much more difficult to oppose.

In today’s much more balanced “post-Western hegemony” world, we have to see intervention less as an event —like the invasion of Iraq — and much more as a process, like the one which led to the successes of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma.

Given the necessity of stopping Russia from using its veto, why on earth have Western leaders been shouting through megaphones about regime change? We know that Bashar Assad is just about the only friend Russia has left in the Middle East. Calling for him to go only helps them shelter behind the one scrap of clothing they have left to cover their dignity — that this is not driven by humanitarianism but by Western imperialism.


Of course any sensible person realises Assad must go. Gaddafi had to, too. But in Libya, we were careful not (quite) to say so. To demand Assad’s removal in lights is bad politics and clumsy diplomacy, not least with Kofi Annan’s mission on the ground trying to broker a cease-fire.


It now seems almost certain that the Annan mission is over. So the West should take a step back and leave space for a regional coalition, perhaps led by Turkey, to call for UNSC action. And what they propose should be framed initially, not around political actions, but exclusively around humanitarianism ones — the opening of a secure humanitarian corridor to Turkey perhaps, or the formation of a humanitarian relief mission to the besieged cities sanctioned by a UN Security Council Resolution and made up, not of Western nations but of Arab and regional ones.


A single mighty event that can bring a sudden end to tyranny, as in Bosnia, is now beyond us in Syria. But beginning a process driven by the region not the West that will take us there over time, is not.


The truth is that nowadays Western good intentions and deep concern are not sufficient. We have to learn to be canny too. And we haven’t been. The cowering innocents in Houla have been left to pay the price for a Security Council deadlock which, played differently, arguably may not have had to happen.


Post Syria debate The Times 31 August 2

Post Syria debate The Times 31 August 2013


So what do we do now?


The short term answers are easy. The long term ones pose real challenges for our country.


Parliament has spoken and – who can doubt it – reflected the current mood of the British people. Thiers is the sovereign voice and it must be respected – and it will be. There are strange paradoxes here. It is possible to be both proud of a Parliament that said no to the Executive on a matter like military action. But sad; even – dare I say it – a little ashamed at the decision it took.


Of course there a reasons for this. The left over-poisons of the Iraq war; the toxic effect of public distrust in our politics. Mishandling by the Government. President Obama’s unwise attempt rush to action. A Labour Opposition who used their parliamentary duty to ask questions, as an excuse to avoid making decisions.


These are reasons why we are we are. But they are not excuses.


They do not diminish the damage done to our country’s standing in the world – or the effect this will have on how we face the problem of conflict in a naughty world. We have made it more difficult for Obama to act. Maybe even now, he won’t. Then Great Britain, which led in international law and engagement, will lead a retreat from these ideals, towards a new mood of growing isolationism.


Cut it how you will, the bottom line is this. Parliament was asked to join an international coalition led by a US Democrat President, whose aim, a firm response to a flagrant breach of international law, was supported by most European nations and many Middle Eastern ones. And Parliament said no.


The subtext, is perhaps as disturbing as the headline. The Parliamentary Division figures show the darker figures lurking below Labour’s clever strategising. The Government lost because of 30 Tories (and I regret 9 Liberal Democrats). Among the former, many if not most want Britain to leave Europe at any cost. So those who propose Britain’s splendid isolation from our European neighbours have now crucially diminished our standing with our closest Atlantic friends. Alone at last – God help us!


There is a dangerous mood of isolationism running in our country. George Osborne is right. As a nation we must make a clear decision whether this is the path we want, or not. Maybe I am just a hoary old voice from the past. Maybe Thursday is the start of a new Britain, as the Tory isolationist right, Labour’s pacifist left and some further flung voices claim.


If it is to be so, then let it be so because we have chosen it. Not sleep walked into it.


There are big questions here. Why then would we need the world’s fourth most expensive defence forces? As Parliament debated a UKIP poster van cruised outside with the slogan “Keep out of Syria! Oppose Defence cuts!”. Do they really not see the connection? Meanwhile inside the marshalled ranks of superannuated Generals and Admirals followed each other in orderly procession to warn us that action couldn’t mean taking risks. Churchill said if you bring a bunch of Generals together, all you get is the sum of their fears. Quite so.


And what, in this brave new world will Labour do? Having placed in question their proud tradition of internationalism for a convenient mix of genuine concern and political opportunism, will they now join the madding crowd rushing for the exit, or help lead the way back to saner ground? Labour’s answer to this question is of profound importance, not just to them, but to the whole future of progressive politics in our country. Criticise the Government as one may, we now know the convictions of Messrs Cameron and Clegg – the latter driven by a passionate internationalism. We cannot say the same for Mr Milliband.


Parliament on Thursday proved it would be no-ones poodle – good. But if it were now to lead a Gadarene rush towards isolationism, that would be very bad indeed.




Syria The Independent 1 October 2015

Syria The Independent 1 October 2015

Vladimir Putin is giving us a master class on the penalties of a foreign policy based only on high explosive.


We are picking up the tragic human costs of war in Syria, but are now almost powerless to stop the conflict, or influence it in any way. We may want Assad go, but cannot make it happen. We may want ISIL stopped, but two years of bombing have made little if any progress towards their defeat. We bluster in the UN, Washington and London about willing the ends, but we have nothing left but bombs to will the means. The levers to make things happen in Syria now lie in Moscow and Tehran – all we are left with is a bomb release button at thirty thousand feet.


This is a diplomatic failure of inglorious proportions. Historic proportions too, since the result will inevitably be another ratchet down in the West’s influence, already grievously diminished by our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.


One would have thought that we would have learnt the lessons of those defeats. But, still – sadly – stupidly – when the West sees a problem in the world its first instinct is to bomb it.


There are four reasons why we have landed in this baleful position in Syria.


We have forgotten the dictum of Clausewitz – war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. We always remember the war, but forget the diplomacy. As we now see in Syria, war only makes sense within a diplomatic strategy – and we didn’t have one. Post “shock and awe” we tried to create order in Iraq by purely military means, failing to engage the neighbours and refusing to address the burning coal at the heart of the Middle East conflagration – Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territory. And so we lost. We it again in Afghanistan, making enemies of the neighbours, instead of allies – and lost again. And in Libya we bombed our way to “victory” but forgot to create the regional coalition to bring order and reconstruction afterwards.


To choose only bombing again in Syria, without first getting Russia on board, was to invite folly being turned into humiliation. For Putin, with a military presence on the ground, could always up our ante and leave us looking foolish. Which he just has and we now do.


Our obsession with military options and blindness to diplomatic ones, also led to a myopic failure to see that what we were dealing with was not a conflict in Syria, but a growing Sunni/Shia war in which Syria was just a front line. The danger was that the West and Russia would be drawn into a regional conflict, us on the side of the Sunni and they on the side of the Shia – which is exactly where we have now ended up – with all its terrifying implications.


The great Foreign Secretaries, Canning and Castlereagh would have known what to do. They would immediately – I mean three years ago – have started building counterbalances with Tehran, Ankara and yes Moscow too (despite Ukraine). There would have been sacrifices of course – an earlier and perhaps less congenial deal with Tehran; an uncomfortable acceptance that, though we share no values with Russia we do share a common interest in Syrian peace and defeating Sunni jihadism too; a deal with Turkey would have been tough, because of Kurdish separatism. None of this would have been easy – but all of it could have led to an outcome where now, three years later we would have influence in what is happening in Syria, rather than just planes flying over it.


To choose as our first purpose in Syria, the removal of Assad was folly, since we had no means to make it happen. While Russia and Tehran backed Assad, bragging about removing him was never going to be more than empty words. If, as initially in Libya, we had made our aim, humanitarian rather than regime change, then success in the first would have led to the second – as with Gadhafi. If in the end, as now we would need Russian help, then demanding the removal of their only friend in the region, betrays clumsiness and lack of strategic foresight in equal measure.


Finally, the moment that ISIL moved into Syria we should have realised that our game was up. We could either (perhaps) get rid of ISIL or we could (perhaps) get rid of Assad, but we could not get rid of both simultaneously. We should have seen that choice two years ago instead of embarrassingly stumbling across it now. Then we could have had room for manoeuvre and perhaps a little leverage to extract concessions. Now, forced to choose with Russian fighters already in the air attacking ISIL, we have none.


So what next?


We are not the movers of events, we are being moved by them. Our options are limited. But there are, maybe, ways to wrest back some initiative. We should be holding Russia to account for Assad’s barrel bomb excesses. We will have, for the sake of our own face to leave Assad’s future hanging in a fog of diplomatic ambiguity. But we could and should move fast and purposefully to anchor Russian offers of help with ISIL within a wider formal coalition which brings in Tehran and Ankara. British aircraft joining the action over Syria as part of that wider coalition, might make better sense than it does now. In these more fluid diplomatic circumstances there could be a role for protection zones – or, perhaps most interestingly, for – not a no-fly-zone – but a no-bombing-zone.


For three years now the Syrian tragedy has remained stuck in a blood soaked quagmire, as thousands have died and hundreds of thousands have fled in terror. Things are perhaps moving in Syria – though this confers little credit and no comfort on the West. There are diplomatic opportunities now and humanitarian ones too. We should not compound three years of failure, by failing to seize the moment, even if it is not of our making.







Syria Guardian 11 Oct 2015

Syria Guardian 11 Oct 2015


On the face of it – and to the West’s excruciating embarrassment – Vladimir Putin s walking away with all the prizes in Syria.


Our aim was to bring stability to Syria, but he is doing it.


Our target was to remove Assad. But Putin has ensured he stays.


Our hope was to destroy ISIL. But he is the only one with the force on the ground to make it happen.


Our presumption was that the days of Russian power in the Middle East was over. But today Russia has more influence from the north-east corner of Mediterranean through to Iran than ever before.


None of this is due to Mr Putin’s genius. It is due to our follies.


It was folly for us to seek to remove Assad back in 2012 when it was not in our power to make it happen and wholly in Putin’s power to make sure it didn’t. It was folly to ignore the warnings three years ago that this was not about Syria, but about the beginnings of a religious conflict between Sunni and Shia, in which Russia and the West could be drawn in on opposing sides – which is precisely the danger which now so frighteningly confronts us. It was folly for us to choose as our key Arab allies, Saud Arabia and Qatr, who were actually funding the Jihadism we were trying to stop. It was folly, to choose as our main – indeed our only – instrument to achieve our aims, high explosive dropped from the air, when Russia, with force on the ground, could out bid us, whenever they chose to: as they just have.


We have presented Mr Putin with his openings on a plate and he has taken them with enthusiasm and panache.


I suspect there is little we can do now to either restrain him or influence what happens on the ground and I am not at all sure of the wisdom of even trying – at least in the short term.


But Russian triumphalism may be premature. Putin has his problems too. Recent Russian opinion polls show serious concern about being dragged into an Afghanistan-like quagmire. And justifiably so. AS we too know to our cost, it is easy to start these things – much more difficult to end them. What happens if, despite Russia acting as Assad’s air-force, he still loses, perhaps not in whole, but at least in part. ISIL in the east and centre of the country is not falling back – it is still advancing. Having started with expansive promises to defeat terrorism, he will soon come face to face that he may not be able to. No modern leader takes his “face” more seriously. The road to hellish interventions is paved with solemn promises about “limited engagements” – a phrase Putin has used more than once.


Then there is the cost of all this, against the backdrop of a floundering economy and Western sanctions – to say nothing of the real danger Putin now runs with increasing instability in the Caucasus Islamic republics.


No western leader will admit it of course, but our military strategy in Syria has failed. We need to switch tack – back to what we should have been doing three years ago – a policy in which diplomacy, not high explosive is the centre piece.


What Syria will need in the end is a treaty based Dayton style regional agreement, supported by the neighbours and the great powers, which will underpin the territorial integrity and stability of the country. We should be building on the new rapprochement with Tehran to draw them into the process . In the long run, I suspect that Tehran understands that they have more interest in building up the Western relationship, than in continuing to rely on an increasingly bankrupt and bellicose Russia.


If we left Putin to his bombing and outflanked him with diplomacy, we would probably achieve more than we can with yet more high explosive. And when in due course he has to find himself a way out, we can provide him with a ladder to climb down on.

None of this is to suggest (unfortunately) that we can take our aircraft out of the sky – that would be a humiliation too far. We have chosen our bed and for the moment we must endure its thorns, not least because to do otherwise would embolden Putin further. In fact, this is a moment when Western solidarity is the best means to restrain his adventurism and capability for miscalculation. There is no military purpose to be served by Britain adding our widow’s mite of explosive to the mountain already criss-crossing the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. But there might be a political purpose, if it conveys solidarity. NATO deploying of F-22 Raptors at Incirlik airbase in Turkey, would have the same effect.

What all this amounts to is a twin track strategy. Continuing with military action, while recognising that it will have little effect beyond illustrating to Mr Putin that there are limits to his room for manoeuvre. But shifting our main effort to regional diplomacy, where we can now best outflank him – and begin the task which we all know must be done on day – laying down the basis for the political solution without which, Syria and its tortured people, can never have peace.



Syria Sunday Telegraph 23 June 2013


Syria Sunday Telegraph 23 June 2013


Who would not weep at the sight of the innocents being slaughtered in the bloody Calvary of the Syrian war? Who would not wish for something to be done?


But what if the “something” makes things not better, but worse. That, in a phrase, is our conundrum in deciding what next in Syria.


President Obama has been noticeably coy about revealing what he has in mind when he says the US will now actively help the rebels. It would be foolish to condemn what he is going to do before we know what it is. Maybe what he has in mind is something whose emphasis is more on the humanitarian than the military. That would be interesting. But not easy. A safe haven for the innocents can quickly become a safe operating base for the fighters. A protected aid corridor can swiftly become a sure route for more arms and fighters. What do you do then?


But if what the US President (and the British Prime Minster?) are thinking of, here are four reasons why this would be a bad idea.


Firstly, huge amounts of arms are already flowing into the rebel areas. At the latest estimate 3,500 tons of arms have been secretly supplied by the Saudis and the Quataris, aided by the CIA. These figures have not been disputed by US sources and I know where they are coming from. They are the left over weapons of the Balkan wars and they are coming from the underground arms factories and warehouses in Bosnia. And I will bet they are making a huge amount of money for a lot of criminals.


Secondly I just do not believe that the Syrian rebels are fit and proper people to be supplying with out arms. They are divided, disorganised and, some at least as brutal, as casual about killing and as extremist as those they are fighting.


Thirdly, I cannot think of any time in history when providing more weapons produced more peace. That’s why I opposed the lifting of the Bosnian arms embargo even at the height of that war and I cannot find reasons to think things different now.


And finally – and perhaps most importantly – Syria itself is not the conflict – it is only a front line in a much wider conflict.


What we are seeing played out in Syria is just one corner of a broader attempt by the salafist and wahabist extremists to take over the Sunni community in preparation for the conflict that matters to them now more than attacking the Great Satan of the West, which is destroying the great heretic of Tehran and the Shia. This is what connects Syria with neighbouring Lebanon, with what is happening in Cairo, in Tunisia, in Libya and in far away Mali. They are all part of the same piece.


What we risk stumbling into now is a widening religious war in the Middle East in which we in the West are being instrumentalised on the side of the Sunnis and the Russians (who have their own problems with Sunni radicalisation of in their own Islamic Republics) are supporting the Shia. Is this really what we really want to help arm?

And by the way, this radicalisation of the Sunni is being funded in large measure by Qatar and the same Saudi rich business circles who funded Osama Bin Laden. We thought that too was fine at the time, because of course our enemy’s enemy is our friend. Right? No wrong. As we soon discovered when he became our deadly enemy too.


Some, and I fear Downing Street is among them, see this as we always like to do as a simple black and white issue of oppressed citizens and brutal dictatorship where the West should ride to the rescue. A sort of Bosnia for our time. It is nothing of the sort. It is much more complex and in many ways much, much more dangerous.


If there is one thing we COULD be doing in Syria it is diplomatic not military. Use the influence of the US and Europe to tell our “friends” in Qatar an Saudi Arabia to stop funding the jihadist radicalisation of the Sunnis throughout the middle and near east. Now that is something we could build common cause with the Russians about and for that reason it may be the best first step to finding our way out of this mess.



Syria The Times 26 August 2013


Syria The Times 26 August


Seventy-seven years ago the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor, faced a crisis.


Italy, flagrantly breaching international law, invaded Abyssinia. The League failed to act because Germany and Japan effectively vetoed it. From that moment, the League ceased to exist as an effective institution and was put out of its misery in 1939. Prime Minister Baldwin told the Commons, the League “failed ultimately because of the reluctance of… nations… to proceed to… military sanctions”.


What has happened in Damascus is a challenge to our humanity. It is also a challenge to our system of international law.


If the international community will not now find the means to make it clear that we will not tolerate the use of weapons of mass destruction, like poison gas, for the mass murder of innocent citizens, then the fragile structures of international law that we have painfully erected these last twenty years will be undermined, and the threat of the future use of weapons of mass destruction will be widened.


So far, so easy to say.


But what to do?


The diplomatic things are easier – the military ones, as always, more difficult.


The first necessity is the truth. William Hague said last week that this was Assad’s work. No doubt he had solid reasons for that judgement. But that does not mean he was wise to voice it. Better to have followed President Obama and give time for the UN to give us the objective truth – or at least as much of it as possible – than state this as a western Leader’s opinion, however well founded.


The present task is to keep focussed on a single, simple aim from which we should not be distracted– get those inspectors in. The Russians seem to want this, too. So here is a Syrian something we can work on in common for a change. We should concentrate on this alone and allow nothing to get in the way – and certainly not the current pointless public sabre rattling. It’s good that Obama and Cameron have spoken. It’s good to prepare. But better to do it quietly, than noisily. This is a time for quiet voices and big sticks, not the other way round.


But here’s the rub.


The evidence of this crime is fragile and degrades fast. It may even be that the full truth is already beyond our reach. But that does not mean there is no truth to be extracted, even this late, from the aftermath of these horrors. We may have to be satisfied now with partial truths and uncertain judgements. But the more truths we have, objectively gathered and impartially stated through the UN, the stronger the basis for further action.


But what action?


Politicians should not play arm-chair Generals. Our job is to define what is needed, not decide the action.


Here what is needed is something proportionate, consistent with international law, closely defined and tightly targeted on the crime. So no, to no-fly zones – even if they were militarily possible. And no to arming the rebels too – even if that was wise (which by the way neither are). It means something sharp, quick, specific and punishing.


And preferably – strongly preferably – legitimised by a UN Security Council Resolution.


Here the west needs to understand the new limitations of its power. Some say this is getting to look like Bosnia after Srebrenica. Maybe in some ways it is – but in many more ways it isn’t. Syria is far, far more complex and with far greater geo-strategic consequences, than Bosnia ever had.


But even if it was like Bosnia, we, the West, are not like we were then. Iraq, Afghanistan and the economic crisis have robbed us of the moral credibility we had then and the military capabilities we had then. A Bosnia and Kosovo style intervention, however much some may itch for one, is not just unwise – it is beyond our means. And, incidentally, beyond the tolerance of our voting publics, too.


So today, we need to do the best we can to build the best common ground we can, with both Russia and China as permanent members of the Security Council. That will not be comfortable, or pleasant. But things will be easier where we succeed in this and harder where we don’t.


But what if, even in the face of damning truth from the UN inspectors- or enough of it for a damning conclusion – Russia and China still continue to veto appropriate sanction against this terrible international crime?


Then we are faced with two very unpalatable alternatives.


We can either acquiesce and so set the precedent that, even in the face of the most egregious breach, probably since the UN was founded, of that part of international law which protects the rights of citizens, no action will be taken if a great power wishes it so. In that case the UN and all it stands for will be hugely diminished as an effective organisation for the future.


Or we can take unilateral action ourselves. In which case the UN will be damaged, too.


Tough choice.


My instinct?


I would hate it, but on balance I judge the second to be preferable to the first. Action taken with the aim of underpinning international law, even if it in the end doesn’t, is better, it seems to me, than no action with the certain consequence of undermining it.


Look at what followed Abyssinia in 1936.




Looking at Syria through different eyes The Times 11 Dec 2012

Looking at Syria through different eyes The Times 11 Dec 2012

It is always illuminating to look at things through different eyes.


An intelligent and worldly-wise Muslim friend said to me of Iraq recently, “the chief effect of the removal of Saddam Hussein was to advance the frontier of Iran 400 miles to the west”. With the current Shia dominated Baghdad Government doing more and more of Tehran’s bidding, he could easily have been talking politics. But I suspect he was also talking religion.


The dominant struggle in the Middle East is not for control of Syria; it is the wider confrontation of which Syria should be seen as a part — the contest between the Sunni and Shia visions of Islam in the Middle East.


The history of Western policy in the Islamic world is rich in examples where we act on what we hope is happening, rather than what actually is.


In the 1980s we hoped we were throwing the Soviet invaders out of Afghanistan, but ended up unwittingly funding and arming a deadly Islamic global insurgency. In Iraq we first helped secular Saddam Hussein against the Shia mullahs of Iran — then we removed him as a brutal dictator – now we discover that we have enabled the expansion of Tehran’s influence in ways we didn’t envisage and wouldn’t have wanted. We hoped that the Arab Spring would lead to a new secular Islamic enlightenment — but what we are seeing instead is the rapid growth of Sunni Salafism, spreading extremist Islam from Mali in Africa, through Libya and Egypt to the increasingly radicalised and factionalised rebel groups fighting in Syria. And this extremist counter- revolution which we hate, is being funded and promoted by wealthy private donors in Arab states we regard as friends in the struggle against President Assad, like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Gulf state monarchies.


Are we being played again? Probably.


Something curious and potentially very menacing is going on in the world of Sunni Islam. At first the Arab Spring looked as though it might lead to a broadly heterogeneous, democratic “secular” Islam, best epitomised by Turkey. Governments elected in the early plebiscites of the Arab Spring — even that of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — seemed in their first flushes, to support this. Islamic pragmatists by nature, broadly pluralist and tolerant in their approach and above all democratic, these were the West’s greatest hope.


But they are — for exactly the same reasons — regarded by some in the Saudi and Gulf monarchies as the greatest threat. And so, quietly, largely unremarked and almost totally unreported, a counter-revolution is now underway. In war-torn northern Mali, always until now the home of the quiet, gentle doctrine of the Sufi, the Salafists are increasingly the dominant force. In Libya they run many of the armed gangs beyond the Government’s control. In Egypt the widening ripples of Salafist influence are dramatically revealed in a recent poll that showed 61 per cent of Egyptians now supporting a Saudi style (monarchist) government. In Syria, the rise of radical jihadism among the rebels is already bleeding instability in to neighbouring Turkey. In Jordan there is a substantial and growing Salafist opposition to a king seen as far too Western in his outlook and allegiances.


But it would be a mistake to see the motivation behind this as simply anti-Western. Where it appears so, it is a secondary, not primary consequence. For the days when Wahabist Sunnis defined themselves by their attitude to the West are largely over. After Iraq and Afghanistan exposed the myth of Western omnipotence, we are just not that important in the Middle East any longer.


Nowadays this Sunni world does not define itself, as Osama bin Laden did, in relation to the “Great Satan” in the United States, but rather in relation to the “Great Heresy” of Shia. That is the conflict they are now preparing for. And we again are helping them, albeit again, unwittingly.


To us in the West the struggle in Syria is the struggle in which we can never resist intervening – the compelling simple contest between freedom and tyranny. In reality it is much, much more complex than that.


To the growing Salafist counter-revolution in Sunni Islam it is predominantly, something completely different which has nothing to do with democracy and little to do with tyranny. It is the cockpit from which to control the worldwide Sunni community and prosecute the wider struggle against the Shia enemy.


Last weekend The Sunday Times reported the US providing covert arms and funds to the rebels. Probably they are. Probably the French are too. Probably, so far, Britain is not. But London is providing encouragement to the fighters and tacit support for their funders. We need to be much more clear-eyed about the dangers of a regional conflict here and much more active in persuading our friends in the Arab monarchies that the best reaction to the Arab Spring is to reform to meet it and not allow some in their states to seek to undermine it.


We hope for a peace in Syria. But even if Assad were to fall soon, as some suggest, there is one very big reason why a wider peace is unlikely. Syria itself is not the conflict, it is only the front line in something much bigger; a widening, long term struggle between Sunni and Shia to define the future Middle East.


The Russians understand this very well. Their support for Assad rests not just on the fact that he is “their man” and the only one they have left in the Middle East. It is far more about their fear of the Salafist contagion — now also sweeping up into their own Islamic republics of Dagestan and Chechnya. The Chinese too worry about the radicalisation of their Sunni Uighurs.


If, as seems more than possible, the turmoils of the Maghreb and the Eastern Mediterranean dissolve into a wider Sunni/Shia conflict, then, unless we are much more cautious about who we back and why, the scene will be set for the West to be suckered into supporting one side, while the Russians are drawn into the other.


Mao Tse Tung used to call the First and Second World Wars, “the European civil wars”. It is always illuminating to look at things through different eyes — especially if this reminds us that, as in Europe in the last century, so in the Middle East today, a regional war can have global consequences.



Syria Mirror 16 November 2015

Syria Mirror 16 November 2015


So, here’s the question.


Does the shocking blood and carnage on the streets of Paris mean that four British war planes should join the Western led air armada attacking ISIL bases in Syria?


Surely this is the time to show solidarity with the people of France in their moment of pain?


It is and we should in every way we can.


Except where this would delay the ending of the even greater carnage and horror on the streets of Syria and the seemingly endless stream of human misery fleeing for refuge in Europe.


Syria is now the fourth successive disaster of Western intervention. Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria. The central reason for all these failures is the same. Our obsession with high explosive as the only of instrument of foreign policy.


Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying all military action is useless. I am not a pacifist – how could I be as an ex-Royal Marine who has seen service in three conflicts on behalf of my country?


But that experience taught me that military force only works in the context of a diplomatic strategy. Since Iraq and George Bush Junior’s “Shock and Awe”, the West reaches for war first and never diplomacy. We see a problem in the world and our first instinct is to bomb it – and if that doesn’t work, bomb it more. And then we fail. And leave behind a country, often more wrecked than when we started.


20 years ago, with the Dayton agreement, we built peace in Bosnia through an international treaty which involved the neighbours and was under-pinned by the great powers. Then we deployed military force and successfully stabilised an enduring peace. In Iraq and Afghanistan we made the neighbours enemies and lost. We did it again in Libya and lost the peace. And then again in Syria three years ago.


And so we left an opening for Putin. If bombs were the game, with aircraft on the ground he could do it better than us – and has.


But Putin has now over–extended himself. His wrecked economy cannot afford such an expensive war; he is finding his bombs are no better at destroying ISIL than ours are; instability is spreading into Russia, especially the Islamic republics of Dagestan and Chechnya. He is discovering as we have, that getting into quagmires is easy; getting out is not. Vladimir will be looking for a ladder to climb down soon.


Instead of being provoked into mindless bombing in Syria we should, these last three, years have been putting together an international agreement – like Dayton – involving Iran, Turkey, moderate Arab states – and Moscow too. Then we could have surrounded ISIL the better to strangle them. Then we would have had a diplomatic framework, in which military force made sense.


At last this is happening, as American Secretary of State Kerry in Vienna tries with the Iranians and others, to put together a agreement which, much more than bombing, offers the best chance of ending, if untidily, the long nights of misery in Syria – and of horror, as last Saturday, in Paris.


The “Coalition” air-forces bombing Syria are not short of explosive. They have mountains of the stuff. Their problem is not bombs to drop, but finding targets to drop them on. Many planes return with their weapons unused.


Sending our aircraft in might have some purpose as an act of solidarity. But it has absolutely none, militarily. It is not wise to go to war for a gesture – especially with peace talks in progress.


So here’s the choice.


Add our widow’s mite of bombs to the mountain already waiting to be dropped (or not as the case may be)?


Or throw our weight behind diplomacy to give us the best chance of beating ISIS and bringing some kind of peace to Syria – and balm to those fleeing from her horrors.


Seems a no-brainer to me.