House of Lords Question on Syria

Peter Hain asked the Foreign Office Minister the following question in the House of Lords on 1st February

“My Lords, is not the very problem with our foreign policy that, to use our own phrase, we have tried to dictate what should happen, not having learned the lessons from Northern Ireland that you do not impose preconditions when trying to resolve a conflict? To demand at the beginning with a bit of bombast and bluster that Assad must go-he was never going to-then say that he should stay for only six months, and now say that he cannot stand for re-election, is a failed strategy which is contributing to a disastrous catastrophe. Why do the Government not change course and recognise that he has to be negotiated with and a transition agreed?”

For the full debate, follow the following link

Isil Terror, Islam And The West’s Response

University of Swansea Lecture 19 March 2015

The barbarism of the group Islamic State or ISIL risks engulfing the Middle East in a catastrophe of terror, sending shockwaves of instability raging through the region with incalculable political and humanitarian consequences.

Last year they executed 700 members of the Syrian Al-Sheitaat tribe and 1,700 Iraqis in Tikrit.  Women and children have been sold into sex slavery, boys crucified and a captured Jordanian airman videoed while he was burnt alive trapped in a cage.  Victims have been forced on camera to kiss the heads of the recently decapitated moments before their own deaths.  Eyes have been gouged out of defeated enemies and minority groups are reportedly hunted for sport according to eye-witnesses reporting to the United Nations Human Rights Council.   Family members have reportedly been forced to eat the corpses of their loved ones.

Acts of unspeakable brutality like these are quite deliberate: helping ISIL create the myth that it is omnipotent, spreading terror and total incomprehension that any human being could ever behave in this way – even more so when normal British boys become such monsters in adulthood.

ISIL’s philistine destruction of ancient artefacts demonstrates not just a disrespect for other cultures but an ignorance of their own as the Islamic world loses its history to their sledge-hammers and crowbars, in territory unusually rich in rare traces of civilisations gone by, such as the Assyrians and Babylonians, with the origins of Islam, Christianity and Judaism to be found among the deserts and mountains of the region.

Acts of ISIL vandalism such as the destruction of an Assyrian church built in 700 AD, or the destruction of the tomb of biblical prophet Jonah in Mosul are both attention-seeking and in-line with their extreme Wahhabi ideology which forbids the worship of any idols, and is in line with the ‘purification’ of their territory.

In February 2015 ancient statues were destroyed in their hundreds by ISIL fighters in Iraq in a deliberate display of totalitarian ideology. The ancient city of Nimrud is no more, joining Hatra, a UN world heritage city, on the list bulldozed.

ISIL’s relentless advance

By late summer 2014, ISIL was relentlessly advancing beyond Syria and deep into Iraq, with genocidal attacks launched on everyone who did not conform to its fundamentalist theology – including fellow Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims and minority groups such as Christians, Kurds, Yazidis and Turkmen.

At one point it seemed that nothing could stop ISIL’s onslaught.  But then, in September 2014, after a parliamentary motion authorising military strikes on ISIL in Iraq (for which I voted) – and, crucially, requested by the Iraqi Government and by the Kurdish authorities – Britain, joined by other European nations and America, delivered both this and other assistance to those resisting ISIL’s advance.  Minorities were saved from extinction, and Kurdish Iraq was bolstered in its fight back.

Since then military action against ISIL has been ongoing, very significantly with the participation of countries in the Middle East:  Jordan, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Turkey. Western logistical and other military support has also helped bolster an Iraqi army in danger of being completely overrun, and gradually ISIL has been either held or pushed back. Nevertheless it remains a ruthlessly potent threat, with the capacity to spring back or strike at new targets.

Western intervention

Voices arguing that it is none of our business to intervene in a faraway conflict are growing quieter.   The shocking massacre of Coptic Christians by ISIL in Libya in February 2015 has triggered greater involvement by Egypt, crucially furthering the region’s sense of ownership of the fight against ISIL and ensuring that, despite Western involvement, this is not merely another intervention by foreign powers.

The legacy of 2003’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq has irreparably damaged the very notion of western intervention.  I was a British Cabinet Minister then and I backed Tony Blair’s decision to invade because I honestly believed Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.  I was wrong: he didn’t – we went to war on a lie, and the aftermath was disastrous.

The ensuing decade has made me deeply allergic to any form of British armed intervention in the region.     Since 9/11, the West has had a pretty poor success rate for its interventions in Muslim countries, even though every single one was undertaken by the Governments in power for what were believed to be the most honourable of reasons. Not even Libya – a supposedly surgical operation consented to by Parliament in 2011 – has been a good advertisement, for it has since become ungovernable, engulfed in conflict between warring fiefdoms, with ISIL now menacingly active there too, just to the south of Italy, right on Europe’s Mediterranean doorstep.

Yet indulging in the fictitious luxury of isolationism, never intervening abroad, turning our back on our international obligations, doing nothing in the face of genocide as the West shamefully did over Rwanda in 1994, is indefensible.

Tony Blair’s Labour government, in which I was at different times Africa and Middle East Minister, was right to intervene and save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000 and also to prevent the genocide of Muslims in Kosovo in 1999.

Now, Britain is helping defend, with unusually Iran on the same side, a fledgling Iraqi government that has the potential to unite and create a lasting peace. The current Prime Minister of Iraq Haider Al-Abadi promises inclusive Shia-Sunni rule quite different from the Shia sectarianism of his predecessor Al-Maliki, who had been wrongly backed by the West.   As a House of Commons Defence Committee Report in February 2015 put it:  ‘the Sunni communities became increasingly alienated from the al-Maliki Government (which they perceived as an alien, Iranian-backed conspiracy), and, therefore, increasingly fertile ground for the insurgents’.

It is significant that Iran’s Republican Guard in March 2015 began taking the lead in the defence of the Iraqi city of Tikrit with the blessing of the Iraqi government.

Nevertheless there is a real danger that by stepping in at all western powers risk freeing Middle East governments and their militia proxies to pursue other sectarian agendas to the detriment of the anti-ISIL campaign.  The West must be very determined and careful to ensure there is regional ownership of, and responsibility for, tackling the ISIL problem, rather than allowing them to pass the buck.

The Commons Defence Committee argued that Britain must ramp up its involvement in the conflict, to match the contribution of the US, Germany, Italy, Spain and Australia. But the danger is that this will turn the conflict into the very one ISIL craves: with the ‘infidels’ of the west.

But what is ISIL?

The Commons Defence Committee persuasively argue that a central problem with Britain’s involvement in the fight against ISIL is the lack of understanding, even at highest levels.

Although its cadres were active in Iraq for about a decade, first under the guise of Al-Qaeda and later as ISIL, this attracted little attention from British intelligence. In 2014 therefore ISIL seemed to have sprung out of nowhere.  In fact ISIL’s development from Al-Qaeda in Iraq to its current form came from the horrific situation playing out in Syria since 2011 when President Assad repressed, then unleashed a campaign of butchery against protestors peacefully demanding the democratic values of the Arab Spring for Syria.

ISIL contains many foreign fighters from across the Arab and Islamic world, but its leadership includes several senior ex-Saddam Hussein army and intelligence officers of legendary cruelty: a powerful mix of extremist ideology and professional military experience expertise making it so formidable.

Within Iraq the goals of the ex-Sadaam Sunni Baathist leadership and ISIL are very different, offering the opportunity to divide them. ISIL wants an Islamic State stretching from Iraq to Syria and opposes preserving the borders of Iraq. By contrast its current Sunni Iraqi allies either want to overthrow what is a Shia dominated government to regain the supremacy they lost when Sadaam was removed in 2003, or favour a semi-autonomous region, like the Kurds do.

ISIL is medieval both in its barbarism and in its fanatical religious zeal.  But, at the same time, it is a product of a deep seated sense of Sunni disenfranchisement from the Sunni autocracies in the region. Unless that political malaise is addressed, ISIL – and groups like it – will continue to feed off popular resentment.

ISIL’s members possess a devout belief that the teachings of the conservative Wahhabi sect – which dates from the 18th century within the Sunni strand of Islam – possesses the sole truth.

ISIL labels non-Wahhabi Muslims (even fellow Sunnis) as apostates – providing justification for exterminating both them and any other religious group blocking the way to establishing its objective: a caliphate, that is to say an Islamic state, encompassing all Muslims and led by a caliph, successor to Mohammed.  Consequently ISIL has a chilling certainty of its righteousness and fundamentalism.

According to US intelligence estimates back in September 2014, ISIL commanded between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters. No-one seems to be willing to put a figure on the current numbers, though they may have doubled. ISIL commands a huge area of land straddling Syria and Iraq, accounting for 40 per cent of Iraqi wheat production, with around 6 million people living under its rule.

Although the rise of such a new caliphate has long been the stated aim of global Jihadi terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, the rigidly extreme Wahhabism specific to ISIL makes them an even more potent threat than Al-Qaeda, the bogey-men of the last two decades.

Global Jihadis see the world as a confrontation between their way of life and that of the West, a dichotomy re-enforced by President George W Bush’s invocation of a similar binary world view. The Arab Spring, confounding hopes that it could be a harbinger of democracy and secularism in the region, has resulted instead in the collapse of several states that were led by allies of the West, leaving a power vacuum and the opportunity for Jihadis with long-held anti-Western aims to take that space and establish some authoritarian control.

In Syria and Iraq, ISIL has fed on the power vacuum created by bitter conflict and decades of division, and they aim to exploit geo-political frailties to advance even to Afghanistan – creating a 2,000 mile long so-called Islamic State with ready-made supporters among the Taliban.

ISIL’s leader is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi Sunni.  He is not an ordained Imam or preacher though he did sometimes lead the prayers in his local mosque. He has a doctorate in Sharia law, a wife and a son, and it is suspected he was radicalised by a stint in an American-run jail in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War.

It’s unclear why he was elected by Al-Qaeda to lead the insurrection against Al-Maliki’s Iraqi government, but he soon began arguing that the struggles against the regimes in Syria and Iraq were ideologically the same which lead to a split with the leaders of Al-Qaeda who wanted Abu-Bakr and his men to concentrate on Iraq and not Syria. Furthermore, he disavows the existence of a border between Iraq and Syria, countries created from the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 – an agreement deemed by ISIL and Al-Qaeda to have been imposed on the Arab tribes by imperialist ‘crusaders’.

Unlike moderate Sunnis, and most adherents to other branches of Islam, Christians and Jews are not considered by ISIL as ‘people of the book’ to be protected, but as infidels, justifying forced conversions on pain of death.

For ISIL, fighting to establish the caliphate is mandated by divine law. Whether the caliphate is a real state or an imagined community, whether that fight is physical or ideological, are arguments that have been prominent among Muslim scholars for centuries but that really took hold over the last three decades among the Middle Eastern diaspora in the West. ISIL comes from the tradition that states the caliphate is a physical goal to be achieved through physical, largely violent, means.

ISIL adherents are nationalists in their belief and dedication to the concept of umma, a vague but powerful expression of pan-Arab Islamic nationalism, the exact substance of which is hotly debated, but also the driving force of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda amongst others.

What makes ISIL’s ideology so dangerous?

Umma that attracts followers and leads some Sunnis to turn a blind eye to the very real evil perpetrated by these extremist followers of their faith. The interpretation of their sacred duty to the caliphate may appear to be primarily anti-Western, but the real purpose is to conquer the Islamic region and defeat infidel Muslims.

Sunni support for ISIL has been encouraged not just by the disastrously anti-Sunni sectarianism of the previous Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, a Shia, but by the butchery of Syrian President Assad, also Shia-aligned.

The resulting chaos in both Iraq and Syria means that ISIL can even be quite popular in Sunni areas it controls because it has brought stability and security out of chaos.

Authoritative commentators on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even worry that Israel’s failure to negotiate a settlement could allow ISIL to gain a foothold amongst Palestinians totally frustrated at the inability of their leaders to win recognition for their own state.

There are other groups who would also look favourably upon an ISIL-led caliphate spreading their way; groups that already inspire fear by practicing terror: Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al Shabaab in Somalia for example. The possibility of Jihadist groups with existing support bases merging with ISIL is a very real danger, for example the Egyptian group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis.

Because ISIL was motivated by revenge against the Shia-friendly Al-Maliki regime which openly persecuted Sunnis, one of the first things that ISIL did when capturing new territory was to round up government workers and execute them. Under Al-Maliki most government appointments even at a lowly level were perceived as going to Shias.

ISIL’s sectarianism is evident in everything that they do and in their carefully calibrated symbolism. Their leader Abu Bakr has taken the name of the first Sunni Caliph rejected by the Shias after the death of Muhammad. His name represents a Sunni call to arms.

Because Maliki’s government was so unpopular with the Sunnis, that call to arms resonated with those who normally wouldn’t support extremism – especially taken to the brutal lengths that ISIL go to – a state of affairs reminiscent of the Northern Ireland Troubles where many otherwise peaceful Irish Catholics tacitly supported the IRA: even though they might have abhorred IRA violence, they had faced generations of persecution and discrimination.

This is one of the reasons why the Iraqi army initially folded so easily at the sight of the oncoming ISIL hordes in 2014 – the army included Sunnis who were disinclined to fight a group which states its aim is to destroy a government that those Sunni soldiers resented or even hated. This is also the danger inherent in relying on the Iraqi army alone to take the lead in destroying ISIL.

Adding to the toxic mix in Iraq is the presence of up to one million fighters belonging to disparate Shia militias, some directly funded by Iran, of which local Sunnis are deeply suspicious – not least because of sectarian violence by those militiamen against Iraqi Sunnis, according to Amnesty International among others.

ISIL’s deadly purpose

The Global Terrorism Database states ISIL are the most deadly terrorists in pure numbers of fatalities ever recorded. Yet for an avowedly Sunni group, so far the main fatalities of their bloodlust have been other Sunnis. Indeed across the world, Sunni Muslim extremists of all types have killed more Sunni Muslims than westerners or Shia Muslims or any other group.   This bolsters the case for regional powers, many of them Sunni countries, to take ownership of this conflict because it primarily threatens their populations not ours.

Reports of ISIL’s barbarity usually come from or are corroborated by their own quasi-press office. They publish an English language magazine called Dabiq which has detailed ISIL’s justification for the capture, enslavement, and sale of Yazidi women and children.

Consequently any claims that the worst atrocities are perpetrated by rogue members are quite false. The degradation of women and children as a primary tool for creating terror both defines ISIL and is a policy imposed from the very top. Human Rights Watch in August 2014 reported:  ‘We heard shocking stories of forced religious conversions, forced marriage, and even sexual assault and slavery – and some of the victims were children.’

Worryingly for Britain, ISIL’s specific concept of umma is proving more attractive to some young British men and women than our own concept of a secular nation state. Although it is fanciful to suggest that ISIL represents an existential threat to us all, if its appeal ever led to the erosion of a worldwide consensus that democracy and liberal values are the way of the future, then that would indeed be the case.

ISIL would turn the clock back to slavery, having already sold even 14-year old girls into sexual slavery. Their social media posts project a category of ‘lesser humans’. For example: ‘Enslaving the families of the [infidels] and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of Sharia that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Quran and the narrations of the Prophet.’  Moreover ISIL has a genocidal strategy murder or enslavement of around two thirds of all Iraqis.  In an era where capital punishment has been widely banned across the world, ISIL shamelessly uses it for all manner of perceived crimes – in direct contravention of civilised advances towards implementing values of non-violence, equality and tolerance.

The unmasking of ISIL’s ‘Jihadi John’ – the fighter prominent in videoed hostage beheadings – as North West Londoner, and the flight of the three bright and apparently normal teenage girls from London’s East End, all second generation Muslim immigrants, poses an uncomfortable question as to why British values are less attractive than the almost certain death for the men, and quasi or actual slavery for the women and girls, who go out to join ISIL.

However, unlike Al-Qaeda, ISIL are running the necessary trappings of a state in the areas that they have captured – courts, schools, a degree of welfare support for the elderly and infirm – which can bring local people used to an unregulated, chaotic and often violent power vacuum on side. This sets them apart in a more tangible way than the suggestion that ISIL is more ‘extreme’ than Al-Qaeda. Although ISIL have killed more in a shorter space of time, for most of their existence they were called ‘Al-Qaeda in Iraq’. The two groups share the same long-term goal: the return of the borderless Islamic caliphate based upon Wahhabi fundamentalism: an ideology overwhelmingly rejected by Muslims the world over.

Unlike Al-Qaeda which is a secretive, cell-based and fragmented movement, ISIL is highly centralised and highly vocal. ISIL adherents have successfully built up a brand, to use marketing jargon.  The ISIL brand is strong, recognisable, clear and direct – which makes it ideal for recruiting, especially among disaffected young people.

This is partly because ISIL runs an expert and highly effective propaganda campaign, waged through the use of social media. ISIL fighters use both twitter and Facebook among other platforms to circulate images and videos of sectarian massacres – creating hysteria which precedes ISIL’s arrival in new towns and provinces.

Many of the fighters have their own social media accounts also used for recruitment, where the message is coloured and brought to life through personal testimony. To young, disaffected Muslims in the UK, this is a unique chance to see into the life of a British ISIL recruit before committing, and it makes minor ‘celebrities’ of those fighters with the most active social media presence.

Another ISIL innovation is an Arabic-language Twitter app called The Dawn of Glad Tidings, or Dawn, which is an ‘official’ ISIL ‘product’ and is advertised as a way of keeping up to date on ISIL-related news.

This enables ISIL to tweet through hundreds of other twitter accounts the same ISIL sanctioned tweet in a short time frame.  By February 2015 ISIL controlled 46,000 Twitter accounts according to an analyst from the Brookings Institution.  Their tweets include links, hashtags, and images and influence what topics are trending, particularly in the Arabic world.

Organising hashtag campaigns is a trick used by western political parties and charities to get an issue trending. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of users will repeatedly tweet a hashtag in order to get it trending. According to the Arab Twitter account @Active Hashtags which tweets the day’s top trending tags, ISIL hashtags receive on average 72 retweets, before those retweets are then retweeted reaching a large audience – amplifying ISIL’s online support to make it look bigger, thereby legitimising support and drawing in more. UK corporations hire social-media-marketing gurus to produce this scale of impact.

In just one month between 17 September and 17 October 2014 there were more than four million mentions of the English acronym ISIL or ISIS on Twitter; the Arabic acronym was mentioned 1.9m times over the same period.

However, in November 2014 an authoritative report into ISIL by Richard Barrett, the former head of counter-terrorism at MI6, argued that the social media platforms the group has exploited so successfully to disseminate propaganda will also play a key role in its demise by rapidly spreading discord among the six million people under its rule.

Barrett stated: ‘The thirst for change that Islamic State has managed to exploit will not be slaked by its totalitarian approach towards its subjects. In today’s world, no state, however remote, can hope to control its population by limiting its access to information or suppressing its ability to think. It will be no more able to harness the social, economic, and political forces around it than were the states that, through their failure, allowed the space for Islamic State to grow.’

Aside from being the bloodiest, ISIL is also, allegedly, the world’s richest terrorist organisation.  By 2014 it had reserves of over $2 billion according to British Intelligence. The money is a combination of illegal oil exports from refineries they control in Syria and Iraq, extorting non-Muslim Iraqis and Syrians of protection money, and the requisitioning of goods along the way. Obviously oil is the biggest source of revenue but it is also a liability because not many countries want to buy it and it is hard to smuggle out.  It is therefore heavily discounted to entice buyers, most of whom are in Turkey, Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan (the latter two ironically ISIL’s targets).

ISIL’s fighters are paid, another factor which has featured prominently in recruitment material. The payment is a flat rate for themselves, for each wife and for each child, and those payments are supposed to carry on being made to the family if the fighter dies – an example of how ISIL is emulating the functions of a state. All of these transactions are made in cash via couriers, relying on the cooperation of border guards.

ISIL survival and success does therefore depend on a carefully calibrated if unorthodox economy. One reason why Turkey is under no immediate territorial threat from ISIL, is that it relies too much on smuggling routes through Turkish territory both to purchase vital goods and to sell discounted oil. Then there is a steady stream of donations, especially from sources in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, although the amounts are small compared to oil revenues.

Ambivalence in the Arab World

When in August 2013 the British Parliament – rightly in my view – decided not to agree on military strikes against the Assad regime or arming the moderate Free Syria Army, many of those opposing the Prime Minister’s recommendation to do so were concerned that arms were likely to fall into the hands of Jihadis, as happened in late October 2014 in Idlib. Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL were already looking like the more successful partners in the coalition of rebels fighting Assad. Arms from the UK to moderate rebels would not have helped to prevent this state of affairs, because it would not have matched the international funds reaching ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra, particularly from funders in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

Several Sunni Arabic states are generally assumed to be playing a double game, denouncing ISIL at state level but turning a blind eye to private citizens (especially the really wealthy and powerful ones) making donations.

As a Shia country in a Sunni dominated region Iran has been very vocal in expressing frustration that Sunni countries which are nominal allies of the US have been funding Sunni extremism, including ISIL, for years and are only now seeing the consequences of how this might threaten their own existence. Given the opportunity, ISIL would be unlikely to baulk at expanding its activities onto the territory of erstwhile bank-rollers. Indeed ISIL considers the governing Saudi Monarchy as ‘corrupt betrayers’ of their common Wahhabism.

Emiratis have carved out a distinct role, perhaps the most coherently strategic of all the Gulf states.  The UAE is highly critical of Qatar’s role, and instrumental in opposing it in the Gulf Cooperation Council.  Whereas Qataris and Saudis have openly and generously funded radical Syrian Islamist groups, including indirectly and perhaps inadvertently ISIL, Abu Dhabi has been much more cautious: keen on a transition from Assad but concerned that this does not open the door to Jihadist fundamentalism and even greater chaos.   They have also been by far the leading Gulf nation participant alongside the US in air strikes against ISIL.

Kurdish protesters in the West have pointed the finger in particular at Turkey and Saudi-Arabia, accusing the British Government amongst others of hypocrisy for supporting those countries whilst trying to get rid of ISIL. Qatar is never far from these criticisms either.

Yet the dilemma for Britain is first, can we really afford to support Qatar and Saudi Arabia, knowing that they harbour nationals who would, or do already, fund groups keen to mount terrorist activities against Britain?   And second, can Britain afford to take a stand whilst relying on Qatari gas and Saudi oil, as well as lucrative sales of military equipment to those countries?

What can be done about ISIL?

In proudly publicising its own atrocities ISIL seeks to goad the West into reacting emotionally, not strategically, on the basis of a hypothetical threat to the West when the real threat is in the region.

Yet for all their bloodlust, capabilities and wealth, ISIL is no match for the military, surveillance and intelligence capacities of NATO, especially the US and Britain. US air power has already provided the Iraqi government with the help needed to come to the support of the Kurds and other minorities facing genocide by ISIL, but air power will always be insufficient, which is why regional powers must coordinate on the ground, preferably Sunni regional powers. The significant contribution of half a dozen Arab countries has slowed ISIL’s remorseless advance and some territory has been retaken.

Iran’s de facto, if covert, blessing for Western military strikes is of seismic importance, opening up an opportunity for future engagement and collaboration which could be transformative for the whole region, Israel-Palestine included.

Although Britain has made the right choice helping local Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting ISIL with air strikes, drones, military equipment and other support, British troops on the ground would be entirely counterproductive.

Countries in the region must take ownership of this battle because ISIL threatens each of them. And none more so than Saudi Arabia, whose king enjoys the position of being the spiritual as well as political figurehead of Sunni Wahhabism according to the traditional three pillars of Wahhabism. Abu Bakr’s ISIL rejects those three pillars which state that “One Ruler, One Authority, One Mosque” falls to Saudi Arabia. Instead Abu Bakr considers himself to be thus anointed in a direct challenge to the supremacy of Saudi King Abdullah.

Many commentators have drawn a parallel with US funding of the Afghan muhajideen fighting against Soviet invaders.  For these fighters later turned their attention and their US funded guns on the West.  Saudi nationals funding of ISIL risks encouraging a similar subsequent attack against their own government.

The Muslim divide and the Christian divide

However, rather than being patronising about Sunni/Shia sectarianism in the region, the West should show some humility and acknowledge that the relative peace we take for granted today in our own countries has developed out of centuries of our own bloody history of internecine Christian conflict, some of it, as in Northern Ireland, very recent.

There were ferocious religious wars in Europe between Protestants and Catholics in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Protestant reformation’s stated aim was to purify Christianity after centuries of perceived degradation by the Catholic Church who in turned chose violence to repress these ‘heretics’, resulting in carnage and terror. Although there is no direct theological comparison with today’s Shia-Sunni conflicts, each side of this Muslim divide believes that to make concessions to the other is to risk total elimination, and each side’s religious aims have been co-opted by regional governments in order to gain control for themselves.

There is a striking parallel between repression by medieval Catholics and ISIL’s approach to the Yazidis. Between the 12th and 14th centuries, so-called heretics were annihilated by the Catholic Church – Cathars in particular were accused of devil-worship and perversion, much as Yazidis have been demonised by ISIL. Catholics succeeded for a long time in wiping out religious differences and silencing all dissent in Western Europe. If ISIL succeeds the same fate awaits the Middle East.

After the wars of religion in Europe came the Enlightenment, and secular nationalism eventually developed into the predominant model of government, with religion relegated to a more private position in society and religious tolerance implemented.   A similar secular consensus should be the objective of all in the Middle East. But this is unlikely to be fostered by any existing players, including the so-called moderate fighters in Syria favoured by the West. Although they are open to democratic elections deciding the future of the country, their agenda also discriminates against women, and opposes secularism and non-Sunnis.

What hope for the future of the region? 

As long as the Sunni-Shia fault line divides and poisons the politics of the Middle East, the region will be never be stable.

Defeating ISIL will be impossible without substantive progress in Iraq towards a democratic, secular and unified government encompassing Sunnis, Shias and Kurds – perhaps based upon a federal structure. This could provide the stability not experienced in living memory but which Iraqis crave and deserve.

We are also seeing the beginnings of enhanced regional cooperation through the coalition of Arab States currently engaging in air strikes and military attacks against ISIL.  They evidently do not want a return to a medieval caliphate but look forward to building modern nations.

The last few months have seen an indirect alignment between the US and Iran, because of threats to Iranian interests. ISIL represents the end of Shia rights in Iraq which is not only home to a large Shia population but also to sacred locations in the Shia tradition. To the overwhelmingly Shia population and leadership of Iran this is incredibly important – even to the point of discreetly backing their old enemy, the US, in the bombing of ISIL strongholds. There is, however no prospect of Iran, which has consistently opposed US involvement, especially military, in the region, turning cheerleader.  A thawing of relations with the West is the most that can be expected for now, and depends upon the outcome of current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear intentions: civil or military.

The flow of young men from states in the Middle East and North Africa to ISIL, is in part due to the failure of the Arab Spring to secure genuine change for that generation of worldly, connected young people. Many young Arab men and women were switched onto politics by the events of 2011, and have not been satisfied by either changes in regime or the small reforms granted by those regimes that survived. To them ISIL is a cause, an exciting, successful rejection of a life which has left them with skills but without jobs or a stake in their own societies. Poverty and disparity in education are also factors. As Chatham House analyst Jane Kinnimont has written, ISIL are ‘not deeply rooted in Iraqi or Syrian society’, instead they are ‘an indication of how desperate people are for an alternative to the status quo.’

Limits to Western intervention

The King of Saudi Arabia has often expressed the need for Arab ownership of security issues in the region, a position that has sometimes lead to tension with the US which considers itself to be the key player. But unless the US and Europe are prepared to embrace Arab ownership of the region’s conflicts and to put the onus on Arab states to find a solution, there is no prospect of establishing peace and stability in the Middle East. Despite the benefits of getting rid of Saddam, Iraq is a salutary case study of how Western intervention can go disastrously wrong.

Today Western mission creep should be firmly resisted but we can and should offer our assistance more creatively as the Commons Defence Select Committee recommends. The US and its allies cannot defeat ISIL.  All we can help to do is contain them.  We can, however, provide more planes and we should do so when requested by the Iraqi security forces and the Kurds. We can also offer to help with structural reform of the Kurdish Peshmerga and the training of troops. But this strategy must be based upon insuring that the states in the region take responsibility for defeating ISIL militarily and also politically by resolving the grievances and state failures upon which they thrive.

Otherwise Western states run the risk of minimising the threat of ISIL against Arabic states, thus minimising those states’ responsibility to act. That path leads to a never-ending cycle of intervention and withdrawal that has weakened and radicalised the entire region.
Currently the West and its regional allies have no clear plan or political and military strategy for defeating ISIL.   Having initially and successfully fought like a proper army out in the open, ISIL suffered heavy casualties from air strikes and subsequently resorted to guerrilla tactics not so easily targeted.


Furthermore, containing ISIL in Iraq is not enough.  It has to be done in Syria too because ISIL controls a chunk of land across the border which to it is invisible.   If it is pushed back from Iraq it will retreat into Syria and regroup.

Syria’s Russian supplied air defences have been hit by the fighting, yet they remain quite sophisticated.  Even the US has had to pre-inform and liaise with Assad’s forces about the timing and location of its air strikes.

Although without either UN or Syrian government authorisation, air strikes in Syria may be illegal, there could well be justification under international law without UN agreement, for instance under the UN’s Responsibility To Protect doctrine.  And UN authority for air strikes in Syria won’t be granted without agreement of Russian President Putin – maybe Iranian President Rouhani too.   That’s very difficult, to many utterly distasteful, yet what is the alternative?

Of course Assad’s forces have unleashed horrifying waves of violence on sections of his people, though his Jihadist opponents too have committed terrible atrocities.  Instead of trying – and humiliatingly failing – to bounce Parliament into backing a military strike in Syria in late August 2013, the Prime Minister should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning.  That was always going to be the only way to get Assad – and more important his backers – to shift towards compromise.  Continuing to insist, as a pre-condition, on Assad’s removal was never going to work, indeed has helped prolong a conflict taking about 100 lives a day.

For Syria never was some simplistic battle between evil and good, between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people.

It is a civil war: a quagmire into which Britain should tread at dire peril.  At its heart is an incendiary political struggle feeding upon Sunni versus Shia, and their chief protagonists and sponsors Saudi Arabia versus Iran. And also a cold-war hangover: the US with all its considerable military and intelligence assets in the region versus Russia with its only Mediterranean port and an intelligence capability in Syria.

Even more crucially, Assad is backed by around 40 per cent of the population, his ruling Shia-aligned Alawites fearful of being oppressed by the Sunni majority along with Kurds, Christians and other minorities.  Although few like his repressive Baathist rule, they always feared even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, Jihadism or Sharia extremism: and with very good cause as we now see in ISIL.

Assad, backed by such a large proportion of his people and by the power of Russia and Iran, was never going to be defeated. If western military intervention had somehow toppled him without a settlement in place, violent chaos in the Syrian quicksand would still have ensued.  Some analysts believe it would have been even worse than the appalling cruel, brutality Assad unleashed as he drove his people into carnage and chaos instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab Spring reached Syria in March 2011.

As the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi set out several years ago, a political solution was always the imperative.  That means negotiating with Assad’s regime, and with the Russians and Iranians standing behind him – something US Secretary of State John Kerry belatedly conceded March 2015. Despite Assad’s prompt rejection of Kerry’s offer (seen as a signal of his own strength), the failure to attempt that from the outset is a major reason why the civil war has been so prolonged and why ISIL has been allowed to flourish.

The continuation of US air strikes in concert with Arab boots on the ground in Iraq should be accompanied by an international effort to foster a local, ceasefire-led approach in Syria.

Yet engaging doesn’t mean befriending Assad or his regime.  Rather, akin to Churchill in 1941: ‘If Hitler invaded hell,’ he told his private secretary as Germany readied to invade Stalin’s Russia, ‘I would at least make a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.’

Handled sensitively this could be an opportunity both to kickstart a proper Syrian peace process and to defuse longstanding, deep and inflammatory divisions amongst Muslims in the Middle East.

Iranians as Shiites sponsor Hezbollah and other militias. Saudis and Qataris as Sunnis sponsor Al Qaeda and other Jihadists – including ISIL where they have helped unleashed a monster now threatening to devour them all.

By acting carefully not bombastically, and by making common cause with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to confront a common ISIL enemy, Britain could possibly even help realign Middle East politics to overcome the bitter and violently corrosive Sunni/Shia fault line.  That would be a huge prize for peace and stability and a fresh start in the region.


Pursuing cases is leading victims down a false path

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said,

‘Labour’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and the historic 2007 settlement which established devolved government with old enemies sharing power, has now delivered seven years of peace and stability nobody imagined possible amid the terror and mayhem of the Troubles.

‘Yet “the past” continues to haunt Northern Ireland, dragging it backwards, and recent political controversy has hardly been illuminating.

‘Former Labour secretaries of state like Shaun Woodward and I, seeking solutions, have been accused of sidelining victims, or putting the peace process before justice. Nothing could be further from the truth.’

Read the full article here

Peter Hain Northern Ireland Article May 2014


Syria: The Worst Western Foreign Policy Catastrophe Of Recent Times?

University of South Wales, Public Lecture, 20th March 2014

The Syrian horror has been unfolding since March 2011, and it is estimated that there have been more fatalities per head of population than any recent conflict in the region, with a death count averaging a colossal 117 per day. Government forces have unleashed waves of terror, while their Jihadist opponents, affiliates of Al Qaeda, have imposed their own medieval barbarity.

The European Centre for Foreign Relations puts death toll at somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000. The Oxford Research group has reported 764 cases of summary execution of children. In the Damascus suburbs that were hit by chemical attacks, people died – and still are dying – from hunger. The number of Syrians in need of food aid is estimated to be as high as 10.5 million which is almost half the population.

The murder and torture of thirteen year old Hamza Al-Khatib by government forces early on in the conflict showed Syrians and the world that no-one was safe, whatever their age, gender or religion. The names of cities like Homs – partly evacuated by the UN after being under siege for over 600 days – have joined some of the world’s worst atrocities: evacuees described the situation inside as ‘genocidal’.

In February 2012 the entire Baba Amr district of Homs was destroyed, and very little is known of the fate of those who lived there. The regime has demonstrated again and again how disposable they consider their population to be. Armed rebels as well as their women and children are dispatched by the hundreds: 300 dead at the Ramadan Massacre in Hama, 100 dead in one day during the shelling of Jabal al-Zawiya.

Houla is another name that will be remembered for the May 2012 slaughter under cover of darkness of 108 people, including 49 children. These were Sunni deaths and the perpetrators almost certainly Alawite or at least Shia gunmen. Indeed, this has largely been a war between Muslims of the Sunni and Shia faiths: which is a deepening, embittered fault line and source of conflict in the region and across the world.

But the actions of Jihadist followers of the Sunni Muslim faith fighting against the regime have made it harder for analysts to draw lines between a ‘bad’ regime and ‘good’ rebels. Two Jihadist groups murdered 190 Alawite civilians in August 2013. Last year footage of a ‘rebel’ Free Syrian Army fighter eating the part of the heart of a dead Jihadist fighter made the rounds, Russia quick to exploit it as an example of why the rebels must not benefit from arms and money from Western backers: in fact it symbolised a complete collapse of any sense of common humanity in the conflict.

Although it is hard to tell from outside Syria whether the Jihadist rebels now represent a third side in the civil war or are part of the wider rebel movement, increasing testimony indicates that these extremists are taking over the rebel cause, pushing out the moderates.

On 10 February 2014 news emerged that British jihadi fighters in Syria had been filmed torturing a moderate rebel fighter; he was beaten so hard that the metal bar used by the British jihadist broke in two. The victim was alleged to have insulted or mocked the prophet.

But it isn’t just young British men heading to the troubled region to fight: the presence of Belgians, Americans and Latvian fighters has also been reported. This muddies the waters in a way that sits uncomfortably with Western interest groups who fell over themselves to back the rebels soon after the conflict broke out.

The fact is that international Jihadists have been committing atrocities in Syria as bad as, though on a smaller scale than, those committed by the utterly barbaric government. According to Amnesty, the Jihadist rebels have set up secret prisons in and around Aleppo where children as young as eight are detained for infringements of Sharia law, and public floggings and killings are also commonplace. Many of those inflicting tortures are reported as being Moroccan, Chechen or Turkish rather than locals.

It’s estimated that there may be almost 100,000 Islamist fighters in Syria fighting outside of the Western-backed Syrian Free Army which in turn has its own Sunni factions. In addition there are an estimated 10,000 overtly jihadist fighters who are highly trained and reportedly ruthless. A democratic free Syria is of no interest to these fundamentalist religious fighters who have been responsible for a number of suicide bombings.

How, then, did we get into this murderous morass?

Quite by chance, I was the first Western Foreign Minister to have a one-to-one meeting in Damascus with Bashar al-Assad days before his father’s death in June 2000, and his succession as Syrian President. His elder brother Bassel al-Assad had been the favoured successor to maintain the family dynasty and the Stalinist grip of Syria’s Baathist regime. But in 1994, aged 31, he was killed in a car crash and Bashar was lined up to succeed his father instead.

Bashar was a London-based trainee-ophthalmologist, well accustomed to a Western lifestyle and culture. He married Asma Akhras, a London born investment banking analyst and alumna of Queen’s College School and King’s College London. He was known as the quietest of the three brothers and the least interested in politics. Having been summoned back to Damascus, he was the heir in waiting.

In our conversation, he seemed decent, even sensitive – if rather naïve. What a brutal contrast with the callous butcher he was to become: driving his people into carnage and chaos instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab Spring reached Syria in March 2011.

But the horror in Syria has not simply been the result of the regime’s brutality and unspeakable indifference to suffering as it has crushed resistance and clung on to power at all costs. It is also the product of a monumental foreign policy misjudgement which reached its nadir in the British Prime Minister’s humiliation when trying – and failing – to bounce Parliament into backing a military strike in late August 2013. Current and former Foreign Office officials were in despair at the damage done to British credibility on the international stage: never before had a British Prime Minister been so damningly rebuffed in seeking to assert British power.

Just six weeks before that, a motion tabled by backbench MPs of all parties including myself sought prior parliamentary consent before sending UK arms to Syria. On 11 July 2013 it was overwhelmingly passed by 114 to 1, and should have been an ominous signal to a Prime Minister seemingly intent on dramatic military intervention and whose rhetoric had become increasingly bombastic.

That July vote was also very important for a quite different reason, because, despite the decision to allow Parliament a vote before military action in Iraq in 2003 and which set a political precedent, that was not constitutionally binding.
Parliament still has no legally established right either to give or to deny advance sanction to UK participation in military action. The commitment of British forces in Afghanistan was never subject to a vote on a Government-tabled motion. On Libya only retrospective approval for the deployment of forces was sought on 21 March 2011, three days after the announcement of British participation. The deployment of British military assets in Mali in January 2013 in support of a French attack on terrorists was neither the subject of a debate, nor a vote in Parliament.

That is because by historical precedent in Britain, military action or defence has long been determined by the Government on behalf of the Crown under the Royal Prerogative. In constitutional terms therefore, the Government has complete freedom of action, and Parliament has no formal role in the deployment of the Armed Forces or the supply of UK military equipment. The Government retains the initiative: and in some situations requiring an urgent response, or even pre-emptive action, that is sensible, indeed essential. The UK could come under attack or our key interests could be threatened abroad – in which case convening Parliament for a vote might not be practical, and there would be broad parliamentary and public consent for military defence or action anyway.

But on British military action in Syria there was no such consent, as opinion polls as well as repeated warnings to Ministers from MPs of all parties had demonstrated. The government were caught: having expressed a wish to supply British arms to opposition forces but aware that if there were to be a vote on a substantive motion, it would almost certainly have been lost.

I have never been a pacifist. I was a Cabinet Minister when the decision was made to join the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I was Africa Minister when we sent troops to save Sierra Leone from savagery in 2000. As a Government minister I backed the 1999 intervention in Kosovo to prevent genocide of Muslims. If I had been a young man like my father when the Second World War broke out, I would like him have fought against the Nazis.

But as a former Foreign Office Minister responsible for the Middle East policy, including Syria, I was from the outset vehemently opposed to British military intervention of any kind in Syria. Even well intentioned humanitarian interventions can cost enormous numbers of lives. As for the counter argument that over Syria that British military intervention could surely not have made things worse than they already were, remember that French intervention in Algeria led to ten years of conflict and 100,000 dead; in Lebanon there was 15 years of conflict and 170,000 deaths; in the Democratic Republic of Congo a continuing conflict has left five million dead; eleven years after western military intervention in Iraq, the conflict shows no sign of ending and up to a million have died.

We all shared the Prime Minister’s genuine anger at the humanitarian disaster in Syria and the tyrannical stance of Bashar al-Assad.

But Britain shares the blame too, with a stumbling, strident and in the end abortive strategy.

With the US, the British Government began in 2011 with a strident demand for Assad’s unconditional departure. That didn’t work – and was never going to, given his powerful allies, Russia and Iran, and his significant domestic support base. So Ministers turned to provide rebel forces with ‘communications equipment’ and other resources – which failed too.That was the worst of all worlds. The support was so limited it made no material difference to the balance of power, yet it fed rebel belief that West would eventually ride in militarily behind them. Then the British government persuaded the EU to lift its arms embargo and tried to arm the rebels – until cross-party opposition in Parliament blocked that with the vote on 11 July 2013. Finally the Prime Minister tried to launch an attack in August 2013 – until Parliament blocked that too.

The pretext for that planned attack was the regime’s use of chemical weapons against its own people. And, unspeakably abhorrent though chemical weapons are, experts estimated by 2013 they had accounted for just 1 per cent of all the terrible causalities in Syria.

The subsequent agreement by the regime to surrender its chemical weapons to the international community demonstrated the value of a robust negotiating stance. It showed how international actors can work together in a manner that actually delivers results. It was also in stark contrast to the kind of headline grabbing posturing to the gallery that our Government had practised. The Prime Minister never made any coherent case as to how bombing would make a positive difference, either on chemical weapons or in terms of the broader fight for peace – instead it gave a sense of the West just wanting to do ‘something’ – and for that ‘something’ to be as dramatic as possible.

Most of Syria’s chemical weapons existed as separate components or substances, some illegal and some not, and due to be handed over by June 2014 according to a deal brokered by the UN.

It goes without saying that, in backing Assad, his main allies Russia and Iran have been culpable in the unfolding horror. But Britain, too, is culpable.

I had warned, both repeatedly in Parliament and in the Guardian on 21 October 2012, that there could be no military victory for either side in Syria. Others issued similar warnings, but none of these were heeded.

Mercifully from autumn 2013 there has at least been an attempt to progress a negotiation, with the two sides grudgingly participating, although a big obstacle has been getting all factions on the rebel side to agree to talks: the Syrian Free Army and certain Islamist factions have been present but not the hardcore Jihadists. The West has always looked to the Syrian National Council which has unfortunately been unrepresentative and increasingly self-interested.

The United Nations-backed ‘Geneva II’ talks at Montreux convened on 22nd January 2014. Considering that this was the first time that representatives from the Syrian government and from a number of rebel factions had met, three years into the crisis, these talks were a mile-stone.

But they stalled because of entrenched divisions and an almost complete lack of trust. Assad’s representatives repeatedly emphasised that they entered talks in order to deal with the problem of terrorism inside Syria – a deliberate misinterpretation of the talks’ stated intention of finding a political resolution to the conflict: ideally to birth a power-sharing arrangement.

Nevertheless, despite bitter and deep hostility between regime and opposition, there were no walk-outs. And, although no direct discussions between the parties took place, at least they did not spend weeks debating the size of the table as the Americans and Vietnamese did at the Paris peace talks of 1968.

The leader of the Syrian National Council (SNC), Ahmad Jarba managed to hold together the different groups present against all expectations. Perhaps even more important, within days of the talks concluding, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, invited Jarba to come to Moscow immediately for talks. That had never happened before, and was equally disconcerting to Western diplomats and Damascus. All these developments, albeit modest, have helped lay the foundations for future negotiations.

Very little change on the ground has resulted except for a limited but welcome agreement to evacuate civilians out of the besieged old-city of Homs. A temporary cease-fire was meant to enable that evacuation, and indeed women and children were released unimpeded. But roughly 350 men and boys of fighting age (between 15 and 55) were kept back by Syrian government troops for interrogation, worrying UN officials because there was no third party observer present to ensure detainees were not in danger; and the great bulk remain unaccounted for. About 2,000 deaths occurred in the first two weeks of the Geneva talks.

But the real problem is that Britain and the West should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. That was always going to be the only way to get Assad – and more important his backers – to shift towards compromise. Even eighteen months after the war began, Assad was reported to be willing to consider the proposal by the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for a ceasefire for the four-day Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday beginning at the end of October 2012.

But, instead of urging their friends in the opposition to declare that they would reciprocate if Assad made good on his tentative promise, the Western powers and the Arab countries – principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar – continued supplying arms to the resistance, continued to demand regime change and to resource the opposition.

That was fatal, not just because it ignored Assad’s enduring strength and the reality that there could never be a clean victory, but also because this never was some simplistic battle between evil and good, between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people, as the Prime Minister David Cameron’s rhetoric portrayed.

When ‘The Arab Spring’ first spread to Syria in March 2011 it took the form of non-violent Syrian protesters demanding greater tolerance and democracy from their dictatorial regime. Assad should have offered dialogue and engagement. Instead he violently confronted those demanding change, and sadly, though perhaps understandably in the first instance, the opposition responded in the same manner, giving Assad the battle he wanted. Both sides quickly became blameworthy because the opposition responded with violence, and the regime countered with brutal repression.

The conflict quickly escalated into a civil war: a quagmire into which Britain (or the US and France) should have trodden at deep peril. It involved the incendiary internal Islamic conflict – Sunni versus Shia – with their chief protagonists – Saudi Arabia versus Iran. And, to complicate matters still further, a cold-war hangover: the US versus Russia.

Iran was never going to back off because of its key interests. With Iran’s backing its ally Hezbollah intervened in Syria from 2012 – and, concerned about the involvement of one of its main threats, Israel also intervened, introducing another potentially lethal development in the conflict. Refugees poured into Jordan in many tens of thousands. The collateral impact of one million Syrian refugees in Jordan was worrying enough, but the greater risk remains in Lebanon where more than 25 per cent of the population are now Syrian refugees and unlike in Jordan, they are not managed in camps.

A ‘good guys versus bad guys’ prism’ was discredited by the increasing infiltration of Al Qaida fighters amongst the West’s favoured rebels – and by the barbarous murders by some rebels of innocent Syrian citizens including Kurds.

But even more crucially, that simplistic prism was confounded by another – and, especially for the British Government, uncomfortable – reality: namely that Assad has considerable domestic support. His ruling Shia-aligned Alawite minority form a tenth of the population and were never going to give up power if it meant – as they feared the more the war developed – being oppressed by the Sunni majority. Christians and other minorities remained similarly nervous about regime change. Together those behind Assad amount to nearly a third of the Syrian people; add in the Kurds, who are fighting for their own individual interests, and the total reaches around 40 per cent. Few of them like Assad or his repressive Baathist rule. But they fear even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, Jihadism or Sharia extremism.

Therefore if western military intervention had somehow toppled Assad without a settlement in place, violent chaos would have still have endured – some analysts argue it would have been even worse than before.

Russia, though its interest may also have been ensuring the West could not bring about another regime change post-Libya, feared that anarchy because, like the US and UK, it has key strategic military, economic and intelligence interests in the area; for instance Syria provides Russia’s only Mediterranean port at Tartus – and this in a region where the US is very well placed militarily. Russia also has a genuine fear of Islamic radicalism due to own insurgencies, such as in Chechnya.

Another fatal error by the West was to try to prevent Iran as well as Assad from attending a peace conference, because that always was going to block progress from the very beginning. Surely we should by now have understood from Britain’s long and bitter experience of resolving the Northern Ireland conflict, that setting pre-conditions always prevents attempts at negotiation from even getting off the ground?

The impasse was partly a product of bitter suspicion at the West’s real intentions, with the curse of the Iraq invasion still poisoning trust. Russia, China and their many allies on this issue insist they never authorised the UN backing for military force in Libya to depose Gaddafi in 2011and refused to be ‘tricked’ again over Syria. Libya since Gaddafi was toppled – with its people at the mercy of warring militias and Jihadist opportunists and now threats of the country dividing – is hardly a good advertisement for repeating that recipe in the Syrian quicksand.

A political solution was always the imperative. Britain, France, the United States their allies should never have started down the road they did – demanding complete regime change – and, pushing Russia to defend and arm their longstanding ally Assad instead of using its leverage to ensure Assad negotiated seriously. Like it or not, without engagement by Russia and Iran that forces Assad towards genuine compromise, a Syrian settlement simply will not happen.

The Guidelines for a Political Transition approved by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council at the Geneva conference on 30 June 2012 still provide the best road map for a Geneva 11. The aim is not to finalise all aspects of a future Syrian government or to draw up a constitution. The road map instead provides for a transitional government plan on which to base a future for Syria and in the short term to achieve an indefinite cease-fire. According to a UN communiqué on the subject, the transitional government would exercise ‘full executive powers’ and include ‘members of the present government’ as well as representatives from as many groups as possible by ‘mutual consent’.

Analysts have interpreted this as not ruling out the possibility that Assad might stay or at least play a part in the short-term – which is sensible actually since why else would he participate? This is key – Russia, Iran and Assad will not move on negotiations if they suspect that end game is already determined by the West. Assad’s future should be an issue for the talks, not a pre-condition of them.

The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s call on 9 0ctober 2012 for both a ceasefire and an embargo on more arms going to the opposition as well as government forces, should have been heeded. But it clearly was never going to happen so long as the external supporters of both sides clung on to their zero-sum ambitions. And although Russian and Iranian support for Assad is thoroughly reprehensible, it should surely always have been very clear that they would only shift gear towards a more constructive approach on the basis of an international deal based on compromise

Although regime change in Damascus could be the outcome of a negotiated solution, if, as the UK and US in backing the rebels were effectively doing, getting rid of Assad remained a precondition for talks, the carnage was always bound to continue. Transitional arrangements that reach an end point in democratisation are crucial, but their pace must be negotiated, not imposed. In Yemen in 2011 for instance, a hated President did not actually resign but equally did not stand for re-election.

However unpalatable, Assad and his henchmen may have to be granted immunity in order to get them to sign up to a deal: hardly worse than the continuing barbarity and devastation of ancient heritage. All state employees – including the ranks in the armed forces – must be allowed to keep their posts, to avoid a repeat of the chaos caused by America’s de-Ba’athification in Iraq. Meanwhile a coalition government of national unity could prepare for Syrian elections.

Britain needs to continue to persuade its friends in the Syrian opposition – and critically their external regional backers like Saudia Arabia – to promote a credible plan for compromise: local ceasefires, access for humanitarian relief, and names of prospective members of a new government of national unity that will also include ministers from the current Syrian government. Together they can initiate a process of constitutional reform for new parliamentary and presidential elections with UN observers. Only through mutual concessions by both the regime and the opposition can the people of Syria be saved from yet more savagery.

As the continuing impasse around the Geneva 11 talks in Montreux has amply shown, this was always going to be incredibly, tortuously difficult. But a military strike – given that it was never going to have been enough on its own to effect seismic change in the Syrian civil war or fatally defeat the Assad regime – would simply have invited retaliation, more escalation, more civilian deaths and more refugees, inflaming the powder keg. Only through mutual concessions by both the regime and the opposition can the people of Syria and the region be rescued from a nightmare that, if anything, threatens to get still worse.

All the hand wringing and condemnation as atrocity has followed atrocity is empty and pointless.

Three bloody years after the Syrian uprising it is high time for Britain, France and the United States, as well as their allies, including Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to recognise that neither side was ever going to win the civil war destroying Syria; that their strategy has been disastrous, only serving to feed and indeed provoke ongoing, vicious escalation; and that instead a political solution should be the top priority; if it had been from the very beginning tens of thousands of people may well have been alive today.

The strategy adopted by Russia and Iran has not secured their own interests: war without end and a country increasingly heading to a permanent split can hardly count as a success even in their own terms.

But, tragically, the Syrian conflict must rank as one of the worst Western foreign policy catastrophes of modern times.

EDMs signed 2012-2013

Name of EDM Number of EDM
Western Sahara and Human Rights 1113
National Health Service 1104
Tax Exemptions for Private Healthcare Providers 1022
Under-Occupancy Penalty and the Vulnerable 984
Communications Workers Union ‘Close the Loophole’ Campaign 959
Energy Efficiency and Reduction of Energy Costs Bill 841
Attacks Against Rohingya in Burma 838
Tackling Dog Attacks on Postmen and Postwomen 822
Future of the Universal Service Obligation 818
Marange Diamonds Zimbabwe 777
Beer Duty Escalator 703
Community Energy 684
Depleted Uranium Munitions 629
Un-Recognition of Palestine 502
Humanitarian Appeal for Visitation Rights for Wives of Miami Five 497
Renewable Energy: Made in Britain Report 487
Victims of Road Accidents 407
Atos 295
Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction-free Zone 273
National Motorsport Week 262
Rail Electrification to Swansea 122
Celebrating the Blaydon Races 116
Funding for the Thalidomide Victims Pilot Scheme 46
First Aid in the National Curriculum 4
15th Anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement 1243
National Health Service (No.2) 1188
Britain Needs a Pay Rise Report 1081
Animals Used in Scientific Procedures 405
Reducing Fuel Bills through Energy Efficiency 47

Hain Severn Barrage Rallying Call: ‘Wales Stand up and fight

Extract from speech at Cardiff Metropolitan University on 21 March by Peter Hain

A strong rallying call to Wales to ‘stand up and fight’ for the Severn Barrage has come from former Welsh Secretary of State and Neath MP Peter Hain.

After mixed signals from the Government and vehement opposition lobbying by Bristol Port, Port, Mr Hain said: ‘We are entering a key period of decision making and if significant forces in Wales don’t stand up and fight for the Barrage we could lose a once in a lifetime opportunity: the biggest ever investment in jobs and prosperity Wales has seen.’
With the Parliamentary Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change due to report in the coming weeks and the UK Government under pressure to state where it stands, Mr Hain issued his rallying cry in a speech at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

‘Everywhere I go in Wales people ask me – “how is it going with the Barrage”! There is a real Welsh buzz about it. But if Wales want the Barrage, it isn’t going to happen on its own. The Welsh Government and the Assembly have given the Barrage in principle support. So has the Wales TUC and Wales business representatives. That’s all very welcome. But now is the time to stand up and fight for the for the Barrage. Every AM, every MP, every County Council, every Welsh political party, every business group, every trade union or civic organisation in South Wales now needs actively to press the Prime Minister to back the Barrage.’
‘That support can be subject to satisfying the necessary environmental and habit requirements, of course. But in principle backing is needed now, or the project could drift away and 50,000 jobs and £25 billion of private investment will simply go elsewhere in the world,’ Mr Hain warned.

‘The prize is enormous. The biggest renewable, clean, green energy project in Europe, if not globally, harnessing the awesome natural tide of the Severn. Skilled local jobs by the thousand. A new marine turbine manufacturing factory, with new technology capable of being exported worldwide. Flood protection for thousands of homes and properties. And over its lifetime the cheapest electricity in Britain, half to three quarters as cheap as gas, nuclear or wind power.’

Why Labour should put the Robin Hood tax centre stage

Great government policy rarely enjoys an easy ride. Challenging the status quo will always ruffle the feathers of vested interests. So 11 European countries should be congratulated for taking on the titans of finance and agreeing to implement a financial transaction tax (popularly known in the UK as a Robin Hood tax).

Today, their proposal for a micro tax of 0.1-0.01% on stocks, bonds and derivatives received the thumbs-up from EU member states at the Economic and Financial Affairs Council meeting in Brussels, meaning they can plough on to implementation, possibly as early as next year. Europe’s largest economies – Germany, France, Italy and Spain – are signed up. IMF chief Christine Lagarde recently gave her blessing. It will help ensure the financial sector plays its part for the damage caused to our economies. Yet there is one notable refusenik: the UK. Our government opted out, choosing instead to dance to the City of London’s tune.

The social justice arguments for an FTT are incontrovertible: the City’s financial elite may have sparked the financial crisis, but it is the rest of society, especially the poor, who are paying the price with the harshest programme of austerity since world war two. Yet amid the 2.5 million unemployed and the threat of a triple dip recession, the financial sector has over the past year enjoyed one of the strongest performances of any sector on the FTSE 100. But it is the economic common sense, the potential to raise billions in additional revenue, that has led the centre-right in Angela Merkel’s Germany, Mariano Rajoy’s Spain and Mario Monti’s Italy to back this tax. It will collectively raise the 11 countries involved £30bn a year – no small beer.

The size of the UK’s financial sector means we have even more to gain. Can the government really afford to turn down an additional estimated £8bn of annual revenue? Imagine what could be achieved: we could fund job creation programmes, spreading investment across our regions, giving the million young unemployed the skills to enter (or re-enter) the workplace. We could fund the British Investment Bank (BIB) that Ed Balls and Chuka Umunna have rightly put much emphasis on. In Wales we already have such an institution, Finance Wales, which was set up by the Labour-led Welsh government in 2000 and manages £300m worth of capital to SMEs. Rolled out across the country, it could bypass the bottleneck of banks refusing to lend to cash-starved SMEs, helping them to be the drivers of growth.

This is not about punishing the banks, but about getting Britain back on a stabler footing. The rate is set so low precisely to avoid hitting either the City or longer-term investments such as people’s savings and pensions. Undoubtedly an FTT would reduce certain areas of City trading – high-frequency computer trading that was memorably referred to by Adair Turner as “socially useless” – and this should be seen as a distinct advantage. The process would help rebalance the economy away from an over-obsession with the City’s short-term rewards towards other, less volatile, less geographically concentrated sectors such as manufacturing.

President Obama may support an FTT in his second term and we should actively encourage him to do so, but even without US support, Europe is right to forge ahead. The UK already has an FTT on share transactions. This doesn’t drive business away – on the contrary, London’s stock exchange is one of the most successful in the world. The exchequer benefits by some £3bn a year from this FTT, something George Osborne often seems to forget. Other financial centres also have unilateral FTTs – Hong Kong’s raises £1.7bn a year, South Korea’s £3.8bn and Brazil’s more than £10bn (pdf).

As the Bank of England’s executive director of financial stability, Andy Haldane, said recently, there is no “ideological chasm” that needs to be bridged in order to roll this tax out to other areas of the financial markets such as bonds and derivatives. As Labour continues to articulate its vision of a responsible capitalism, it is time to put the FTT centre stage. Between Europe and our own stamp duty, we have the blueprint to make this happen. In times of fiscal difficulty, tax needn’t be a dirty word – the financial transaction tax could be one of the most popular taxes this country has ever seen.