Something must be done
Written September 2015
“Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants” Katie Hopkins, the Sun
Few will have missed the media coverage in recent months of the migrant camps at Calais, and the tragic circumstances of those making the journey from the Middle East and North Africa to the shores of Europe. Tabloid newspapers have talked of ‘swarms’ and ‘tides’ of migrants coming across the Mediterranean — de-humanising language echoed by UK Prime Minister David Cameron to much condemnation. But despite the repeated, bludgeoning narrative of this ‘marauding’ migrant threat to our shores, many UK citizens have taken it upon themselves to bring aid and relief to the migrant camps, organising drives to collect clothes, food, sanitary items and toiletries; and travelling to France to deliver these essentials in person. Those taking part in these homemade humanitarian missions realise that those in the camps are not subhuman ‘swarms’ coming to drain our services and cash our welfare cheques, but fellow human beings suffering dreadful conditions, many after being forced to flee from incomparable hardship and suffering.
The UK has spent £12 million reinforcing the borders at Calais where over 4000 migrants are currently camped, with up to 150 arriving every day. Life in the camps is hard. Visiting journalists describe extremely cramped conditions, malnutrition and inadequate sanitation, and illness is rife. Yet many of those seeking sanctuary in the UK are fleeing from even worse conditions in war torn and failed states such as Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Afghanistan. The ongoing civil war in Syria has killed around 220,000 people, and over 11 million have lost their homes as a result of the conflict. Nearly 4 million displaced Syrians are seeking refuge overseas, 1.2 million of these currently residing in Lebanon (a country with a population of only 4.5 million before the influx of Syrian refugees). Conflict in Iraq has caused 4 million to be internally displaced, and another 400,000 international refugees. The Libyan Civil War, precipitated by the downfall of the brutally repressive Gaddafi regime, has caused another 434,000 to lose their homes. Afghanistan and Somalia face the ongoing insurgencies of the Taliban and al-Shabaab, and both Sudan and fledgling South Sudan are ravaged by conflict. So when former Conservative minister Ann Widdecombe dismisses the distraught and desperate people fleeing these warzones as ‘knife-wielding illegals’ and suggests that calling them refugees ‘does a huge disservice’ to the Ugandan Asians expelled by Idi Admin or the Czech students in the Prague spring, one wonders exactly how much threat one has to face, in Widdecombe’s eyes, to deserve our compassion.
“This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation. It is a population that deserves the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into abject poverty.” António Guterres, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees
The camps at Calais are the tip of the iceberg of the refugee crisis caused by the humanitarian disaster in Syria. More than 150,000 people have arrived across the Eastern Mediterranean from Turkey, the majority of them Syrian refugees. What started with popular demonstrations against the governing Assad regime quickly descended into a complex civil war between the governing regime, opposition groups, Islamist militants and Kurdish separatists. A number of foreign players have fingers in the pie, including the United States (and their Western allies), Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudia Arabia and other Gulf states. The West’s involvement in this multipronged conflict is equally complex. Initially backing rebel opposition forces, the US & UK governments’ plans to engage in military operations against Syrian state forces faced heavy public opposition, and they instead pursued a strategy of supplying and arming rebel groups, largely through the Gulf states and Turkey. Despite assurances that this support was exclusively headed for ‘moderate’, secular opposition groups, it has become increasingly apparent that Western resources and weapons ended up in the hands of militant groups such as Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State (IS) — in fact, Western leaders have at times struggled to even identify who the ‘moderate opposition’ are. As IS have stormed across Syria and Iraq with breathtaking savagery — beheading and burning victims, kidnapping women and girls as sex slaves, destroying cultural heritage and subjecting a harsh totalitarian rule on those living in the areas they hold — the number of refugees seeking to escape this dire situation has rapidly grown. As we witness these barbarous acts and the resulting exodus, we hear the familiar cry: ‘something must be done!’
Indeed it must. But what? It will not surprise many that the West’s default response is military action in Syria — this time not against State forces, but against their IS opponents. The United States is already engaged in military operations (in the form of air strikes) against IS targets in Syria, and in July 2015 it was revealed that UK service personnel have taken part in these attacks (against the will of Parliament) whilst embedded with allied forces. This month (September 2015) David Cameron revealed to Parliament that UK military forces carried out a targeted assassination of two British IS fighters on Syrian Soil. Mr. Cameron told Parliament that the target of this attack, Reyaad Khan, posed an immediate and real threat to the United Kingdom, and that as “there was nothing to suggest that Reyaad Khan would ever leave Syria or desist from his desire to murder us at home… we had no way of preventing his planned attacks on our country without taking direct action”. Contradictions aside, this strike threatens to set a dangerous precedent for UK military policy. It is now reported that the UK Government is preparing to renew arguments for UK military action in Syria, after Mr Cameron told Parliament that addressing the root cause of the refugee crisis means ‘helping to stabilise countries where the refugees are coming from [and] seeking a solution to the crisis in Syria’. It appears from these reports that the UK establishment is again entertaining the fantasy that a military solution to the crisis is possible.
In the same statement, the Prime Minister announced that we would take up to 20,000 Syrian refugees into the UK over the next 5 years. Compared to the 0.5 million refugees Germany has announced it can take annually, and the 35,000 settled already in Germany, this paltry figure is exposed as the token gesture that it is. The UK Government’s commitment to reducing humanitarian suffering stops short of providing significant refuge for those who need it. This is, apparently, not the something which must be done. Instead, the human suffering we see, alongside British fears of immigration, is to be used to justify more British military action overseas. Instead of offering a home to those fleeing this nightmare, once again we are asked to believe that only bombs and bullets can solve a humanitarian catastrophe caused by bombs and bullets.
Foreign Military Intervention
“We can do all we can as the moral, humanitarian nation at taking people and spending money on aid and helping in refugee camps. But we have to be part of the international alliance that says we need an approach in Syria which will mean we have a government that can look after its people. Assad has to go, ISIL has to go and some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy, but it will on occasion require hard military force”. David Cameron, Prime Minister’s Questions, 09/09/15
“…it’s a war crime that’s been committed in Iraq, because there is no moral difference between a stealth bomber and a suicide bomber. Both kill innocent people for political reasons” Tony Benn, Question Time
As the UK government gears up to increase its military involvement in the Syrian conflict, we must look back over our recent history of military interventions to answer the most important question — would our involvement solve, or deepen the humanitarian crises in the region?
In March 2011 — as part of a multi-state coalition and with the backing of a UN Security Council Resolution — the UK began military operations in Libya with the aim of protecting civilians by imposing a ceasefire and no-fly zone. As Muammar Gaddafi’s forces rolled towards Benghazi, threatening to search rebel strongholds house by house for ‘traitors’, it seemed that our intervention was the only way to prevent a bloodbath. The original mission had the support of China and Russia, but this support was withdrawn after the UK and France made it clear that the scope of their military action was not to prevent attacks on civilians and establish a ceasefire — as mandated by UNSC Resolution 1973 — but the ousting of Gaddafi and his regime. Our leaders hoped or assumed that the vacuum left by the removal of Gaddafi would be filled by liberal, secular idealists, who would rebuild Libya as a democratic nation. Fast forward 4 years and many describe Libya as a failed state. Five competing ‘governments’ jostle for dominance amongst local militias, tribal factions and IS in a lawless hell. Murder, abduction and torture are rife, and what state apparatus remains is used to impose the same political repression as existed under Gaddafi. Many believed going into Libya to be the only moral course of action, but this action has backfired and led to an awful situation on the ground and gains for extremist militant groups IS and Boko Haram.
Going further back, our 2003 invasion of Iraq had similarly confused objectives and dire consequences. Claims that Saddam Hussein’s regime possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proved unfounded; based on unreliable evidence and trumped up claims. Subsequent justifications of the war based on humanitarian principles don’t stand up to scrutiny. Conservative estimates put the direct civilian death toll of the war at around 165,000 people, with some estimates suggesting a total death toll of over 1 million. 2.3 million were internally displaced, with another 2 million refugees abroad. The war contributed to the disintegration of Iraq and the current IS crisis, a point conceded by David Miliband who was a minister in Tony Blair’s government in 2003 and voted in favour of the invasion. As a grim side note, the US used both white phosphorous and depleted uranium in the Iraq war, leading to a legacy of illness and birth defects amongst civilians — this stands in stark contrast to our ‘red lines’ over use of chemical weapons in Syria. In Afghanistan, after 14 years of war and horrific death and destruction, the conflict rages on and the Afghan government seek talks with the Taliban to bring about a political solution.
All of this highlights a few things. For a start, the stated reason for war is rarely the whole truth. Whilst we may be told that any military intervention in Syria will be for humanitarian reasons, it is likely we will not fully know the real reasons until the bodies are stacked up. Secondly, the wars we have waged in the Middle East and North Africa this millennium have only created more humanitarian suffering and contributed to the rise of militant groups and the current crisis. Thirdly, even after extensive military conflict, in the end diplomatic solutions are required. There is no reason to believe military involvement in Syria will be any different. Every war leads to civilian deaths, and in military conflict, what one expects to happen is rarely what actually happens. Winston Churchill once said that “the statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events”. The current UK government would be wise to take note.
“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war” Winston Churchill
Many suggest that military action is the only course of action in Syria, saying that diplomacy is impossible with IS, a group widely described as medieval and a death cult. The stated line is that we will not talk to or negotiate with terrorists. This simplistic position ignores both the history of all such conflicts, and the likelihood that a military solution to the crisis is, in itself, impossible.
But IS, like any group, is not homogeneous — there will always be those with whom dialogue is possible. Speaking on Radio 4’s Beyond Belief program, Major General Tim Cross, a military logistics expert who served in Northern Ireland, compared the situation with IS to the Northern Ireland peace process. “In the middle, the core, are the hardened killers, those who are prepared to blow people up, shoot them do the beheadings, all the awful things that ISIS are prepared to do. That hard core is a relatively small number of people… around that inner core are people who are prepared to harbor terrorists, prepared to finance them, prepared to hide their weapons… around that outer core are people who are instinctively sympathetic… in this case to the idea of the caliphate. The dialogue needs to strip these people away, we need to win the battle of ideas with those people, and even in the inner core… you can begin to strip people away”
The unfortunate truth is that IS not only have logistical and financial support, but a political base. Unless the root causes of this political support are addressed and this support stripped away, military action against the hardcore fighters will remain a token gesture. Every western bomb dropped on Muslim civilians is a recruitment drive for militant groups such as IS. Previous military interventions in Libya and Iraq have created safe spaces and fresh recruits for the group. In post-invasion Iraq, the American decision to disband the army and ban all former Baath Party officials from holding positions created an army of well armed and trained Sunni militants, many of whom now hold high ranking positions in IS. Even if we wanted to, we can’t kill all of them, and the bloodbath will only recruit more fighters to their cause and feed into the next stage of this ongoing cycle of violence. We must address the problems that created this group in the first place — that means working with others in the region (including Syria and Iran) and their supporters (including Russia) to tackle the problems of sectarianism, corruption and violence which fueled the rise of IS.
IS also has a large contingent of foreign fighters — thousands of young men are joining from France, the UK, Germany and Russia. It is important that we understand the reason our own citizens are drawn to IS, in order to combat this within our own societies. This means addressing the alienation that some western Muslims face, providing support, tackling racism and, above all, engaging in a foreign policy which does not make our young Muslim citizens think the West is at war with Islam.
Beyond IS and the broader Sunni-Shia conflict, wars rage on in Sudan, Afghanistan and Somalia — it is high time we put our focus on helping to find political and diplomatic solutions, rather than dropping bombs.
“By the government’s own admission, it has sold over £60m of weapons into some of the most authoritarian and war-torn countries in the world” Andrew Smith, Campaign Against Arms Trade
For a country supposedly in favour of peace, the United Kingdom sells a lot of arms. The UK is the sixth biggest arms exporter in the world, and came under heavy criticism recently after it was revealed that we sold over £12bn of arms to repressive states. US & UK arms sales to the Sunni Gulf states and Russia’s arming of Shia Iran results in an arms race which deepens political tensions as these regional powers continue to wage proxy wars through sectarian militias. We sell or have sold weapons & military technology to countries including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Israel, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen and Syria — these names should be ringing alarm bells. The UK supplied weapons related equipment to the Saddam Hussein, after he had repeatedly attacked Kurdish citizens in Halabja with poison gas. The UK and EU sold arms to Muhammar Gaddafi, shortly before dropping 30,000 bombs on his country. Whether or not this fuelling of the fire is short sighted economic opportunism or a deliberate attempt to destablise the region, I can’t say. But if we really want to do something to alleviate the suffering in Syria, Iraq and the broader region, as well as around the world, stopping arms sales would be a good place to start. And if we want to be advocates for peace and democracy, we can no longer continue to supply arms to repressive, undemocratic regimes.
Poverty, Inequality, Repression
“The roots of war lie in poverty: political, economic, and social inequalities whereby individuals or groups are motivated to fight to seek redress” Frances Stewart, Oxford Development Studies
It’s no coincidence that 8 of the world’s 10 poorest countries are suffering from, or have recently suffered from war. Poverty, scarcity and inequality trigger international conflicts and civil wars, and enflame existing divides, be they national, racial, religious or tribal. The rise of National Socialism in Germany can largely be attributed to the crippling poverty imposed by war reparations, and the sudden cessation of US loans following the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Look at the rise of the extremist far-right Golden Dawn in Greece following the humanitarian disaster imposed on the country by the Troika. Here in Britain racist and anti-Semitic extremist ideologues made political headway in some of the poorest areas in the country.
Poverty and inequality is fertile ground for violent extremist thought and inter-communal strife, with different groups blaming each other for the problems they face. Impose this on the already fragile fault lines of sectarian divides such as the Sunni-Shia schism and you have a recipe for disaster. Broadly speaking, comfortable people with safe families and economic and political security aren’t interested in cutting each other’s heads off. Inequality played a major part in the Syrian uprising, after privatisation of state property and industry created great wealth for those with links to Assad (predominately the Alawite community and urban elite) whilst much of the country faced ongoing unemployment and rising prices. This was exacerbated by a drought which has crippled north-eastern farming communities, driven spikes in the price of food and caused mass internal displacement. Yemen currently faces an uprising from Houthi rebels who were sidelined following the country’s 2011 revolution, left without land and jobs and ignored by the new government. A large proportion of IS fighters are Iraqi Sunni’s who feel they have no stake in Iraq under the majority Shia government following the fall of Sadaam.
Look closely at any of these wars — often characterised as purely sectarian or tribal conflicts — and you will find deep political & economic inequalities at their hearts. Zoom out and you will see the same inequalities between the countries as a whole and the wealthy global north, who take resources from around their world to build their great riches.
Political oppression is also a major factor, and closely related — when democratic political means to combating inequality are present, armed conflict is rarely deemed necessary. The corrupt and authoritarian administrations in the region enforce this inequality and use state violence to retain their power and privilege. Claim as we might that we oppose this authoritarianism, we are deeply involved with it — in our ongoing neo-colonial quest for strategic dominance and exploitation of resources we arm and back brutal gulf States with abysmal human rights records, whilst Russia supports equally brutal opposing nations (such as the shiite Syria and Iran). When foreign nations democratically elect a government which we don’t like (for example, because they intend to take control of their own resources and industry and distribute the wealth to their people), we have instigated coups to overthrow them and put puppet despots in charge. This pattern is repeated around the world, from Iran, to Chile, to Indonesia. The British and American establishments have no problem with human rights abuses and repression, as long as the men out meting out the electric shocks and severed limbs are working to maintain our status quo.
But even if we leave aside the hypocrisy and moral repugnancy of our support for brutal dictatorial regimes, the reality is that eventually these regimes will crumble, as they did in Iran in 1978 and Libya in 2011. If we believe that something must be done to prevent war, murder and humanitarian crises then we must withdraw our support for oppressive authoritarian regimes and politically support democracy whenever it occurs, even if the democratic decisions made are not in our immediate strategic or economic interests. We must also engage with Russia in serious political dialogue. It is essential for a peaceful world that we come to an agreement to end the power-plays and proxy wars we have engaged in for most of the last century. This will certainly include an end to eastwards NATO expansionism.
We must also acknowledge that our preferred economic model for the world entrenches inequality. If we really want to create a peaceful world without famine and war we must move away from a model of exploitation and appropriation. Currently the foreign aid budget which we are so proud of is used to carve up countries for the benefit of multinational corporations and force structural adjustment programs on nations, imposing privatisation of vital state resources. We have a skewed system of resource distribution in the world, based on an endless search for private profits, imposed through the backing of state military and intelligence forces. For as long as this system remains we will have inequality, poverty, famine, war and refugees.
“…the triggers include a broad set of religious and sociopolitical factors, the erosion of the economic health of the country, a wave of political reform sweeping over the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Levant region, and challenges associated with climate variability and change and the availability and use of freshwater. As described here, water and climatic conditions have played a direct role in the deterioration of Syria’s economic conditions.” Peter H. Gleick, Pacific Institute
Water scarcity is a key source of conflict in arid regions, and this will only get worse as climate change exacerbates water shortages in these areas. Climate change driven water shortages in Syria led to huge migration of farmers to urban centres, an influx of angry, unemployed young men which fuelled the uprising and subsequent multi-pronged war. In unstable and impoverished areas and against the background of rising grain prices, even small increases to prices due to water shortages in agriculture can result in chaos and even military conflict.
Climate change is already directly responsible for 300,000 deaths annually, a fact often left out of a public discourse which frames climate change as a problem of the future. 4 billion are vulnerable and another 500m are at extreme risk of weather related disasters bringing “hunger, disease, poverty and lost livelihoods” — humanitarian disasters in and of themselves, but also driving factors for political deterioration and military conflict.
As well as tackling climate change, we should be investing in green energy and water infrastructure in these countries, helping to alleviate the drivers of conflict and war. Many may ask why we should be responsible for this. There are numerous reasons. Firstly, the West are the chief culprits for climate change, and the devastating effects it has — the US alone is responsible for 28.8% of historical CO2 emissions, and the UK has the second highest historical emissions per capita of all countries (after Luxembourg, and followed by the United States). Second, we live in a globalised world, with a globalised food system. The UK imports 40% of its food, and this proportion is expected to increase rapidly within a generation. Extreme weather events, droughts — anything which deteriorates the total amount of food produced will have an impact on us through shortages or, more likely, price spikes. Thirdly, this is an economic opportunity to become a key player in the green technology industry and shift our stagnant economy away from a financial services based model, injecting life into old industrial communities and creating good jobs for British people. But perhaps most important is the long term strategic view. Investing overseas in a green and productive world will help us to prevent future refugee crises, wars, acts of terrorism. It will create space for democracy to develop and co-operation to flourish. This increased security will reduce our need to spend money on aircraft carriers, tanks, planes and bombs. Building a resilient and sustainable world is in all of our best interests.
“For what can war, but endless war, still breed?” John Milton
The refugee crisis is fuelled by poverty, drought and war. Yet our response, rather than engaging in a long term plan to build stability and democracy in the region, is to engage in short sighted military conflicts which kill countless civilians and cause further destabilisation. Our bombs result in the fear and hate which drive extremist militant organisations, who we continue to arm indirectly through sales to corrupt sectarian regimes engaged in long term conflicts using proxy militias. Our foreign aid and development budgets are spent on corporate land grabs and appropriation of resources, not development for the benefit of normal people. Our capitalist economic system causes deep inequalities, and when these inequalities are challenged by democratic forces we back violent coups, imposing harsh totalitarian rule. The climate change for which the West is predominately responsible is causing droughts and famine in impoverished states, exacerbating the humanitarian migrant crises and fueling conflict.
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. If we accept this definition, our foreign policy is certifiable. As long as we continue to take the same actions we will get the same results, and the situation in the Middle East, Africa and conflict zones around the world will deteriorate. As the age old cry goes up, something must indeed be done — but that something is not more bombs, more drones, more bullets. To build a peaceful and humane world we must stop providing the weapons which fuel conflict, establish a more equitable economic system, help with development of infrastructure and responsible governance, tackle the climate change destroying the earth’s productive capacity and engage with others to build understanding and develop political solutions to the problems we face. In the meantime, we must fully engage in an international effort to provide sanctuary and relief to all refugees, rather than shirking our fundamental humanitarian responsibilities.