Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A history of violence: Western empires in the Middle East

By Ussama Makdisi (Al-Jazeera)
Neither the U.S. government nor its opponents in the Middle East are interested in democracy except when and where it suits them, and neither do they show any interest in following international law. But the U.S. appears especially oblivious to a tragic history in which it has been deeply complicit. 

When the U.S. occupied Iraq in 2003, the Bush administration said that it was interested not in oil but in ridding Iraq of a dangerous tyrant and thereby promoting freedom. Three years later, it encouraged Israel to launch a devastating war on Lebanon in an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Hezbollah and to build a “new” Middle East. A decade later, America has washed its hands of Iraq, leaving behind a country in ruin, countless Iraqis dead, toxic depleted uranium that has been linked to an alarming number of birth defects, and a fragmented society mired in sectarian violence.

The Obama administration now urgently insists that the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria has crossed a “red line” because of its alleged use of chemical weapons. Even before the current, brutal civil war in its country, the Assad regime has been manifestly violent toward its own people -- whether or not it has actually used chemical weapons hardly matters on this score. 

The problem, beyond the alleged use of chemical weapons (as terrible as these weapons are), is that Arab regimes, including but not limited to Syria, as well as the U.S. and Israel, have collectively abused the human rights of people across the region and ignored their genuine desire for self-determination. They have done this mostly with so-called conventional weapons, conventional intelligence services, and conventional police forces and armies. The horrors of Sabra and Shatila in 1982, in which Israeli-backed Phalangist militias slaughtered Palestinians in Beirut refugee camps, did not involve chemical weapons, though Saddam Hussein’s 1988 massacre of Kurds in Halabja did.

U.S.-led missile strikes, sanctions and wars in the Middle East have added layer upon layer of violence in a part of the world already saturated with it.  None of these actions has mitigated the humanitarian situation of the inhabitants of the region. Rather, these military campaigns -- and the anodyne language of “degrading assets” and “precision bombing” that habitually accompanies them -- have dehumanized the Arab conscripts and civilians who are invariably on the receiving end of these campaigns. They reinforce a misleading notion that the current predicament of the Arab world is essentially one of its own making. 

The U.S. has long buttressed an anti-democratic political culture in the Middle East.

At stake is not just morality, but also history. The violence embodied by the Syrian regime, in other words, is not simply the work of a solitary dictator. Rather, it is a systemic Middle Eastern tragedy in which the West, including the U.S., has been profoundly implicated for at least a century.  The old colonial powers of Britain and France, and today, the U.S., are not neutral observers, nor impartial judges, of the Middle East. They have done much to make the region what it is today. Britain and France created new states in 1920 from the defeated Ottoman Empire; they spoke of self-determination, but crushed Arab resistance to their colonial domination. French forces infamously bombed Damascus in 1925 to enforce their subjugation of Syria. The British ruthlessly crushed uprisings in Iraq and Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s.

The U.S., in turn, has tried repeatedly to reshape the Arab world to suit its putative interests. Unlike Britain and France, it speaks the language of partnership and peace, not of mandates and empire. Ever since 1948, however, the U.S. has both wanted to privilege Israel and secure oil from conservative pro-American monarchies — to ostensibly build a stable pro-American Middle East by changing Arabs rather than changing the U.S.’s priorities in the region. And ever since, there has been protracted Arab resistance to this notion that Arabs must conform to American expectations of them in their own part of the world. 

The U.S. has long buttressed an anti-democratic political culture in the Middle East by supporting the Shah of Iran until his overthrow in 1979, absolutist Gulf monarchies, Israeli colonialism, and authoritarianism in Egypt.  It has also generated significant new forms of resistance to its vision of a docile pro-American regional order, evident today mainly in the form of an Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis. 

There is little way to reconcile the ostensible American need to teach Assad a humanitarian lesson with the reality that Western and American interests in the Arab world, just as much as Assad’s own interests inside Syria, have long been made to depend on the suppression of genuine democracy and the crushing of popular will. Western solicitude for the Arabs is ephemeral. Hubristic western intrusions into their lives are not. 

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Assad isn’t ‘our son of a bitch’

Remembering the West’s deafening silence with regards to the Halabja massacre (not to mention the far larger scale Iraqi chemical offensive of the Second Battle of al-Haw) I came across this excellent article on openDemocracy. Written in the run-up to the Iraq war, I hope in vain it might jog a few memories:

Halabja: Whom Does the Truth Hurt?
In his long reign of calculated cruelty Saddam has used every means available to him – from assassination, kidnapping and torture, to full-scale war, poison gas, ethnic cleansing, and mass deportation. But even by his standards, the gassing of civilians in Halabja on 16 March 1988, during the Iran-Iraq war, is an act with few parallels. It has also become the test case, repeatedly cited in recent months of build-up to another war, of how “Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people”.

But there are a few outstanding questions regarding Halabja, and Saddam is not the only villain.

For years before this particular atrocity, only a handful of London-based reporters and regional specialists (including myself) condemned Saddam. Ours were lone and isolated voices. Most western media organisations lapped up the deliberately misleading agenda set by lobby briefings and the White House and State Department. In the words of Geoffrey Kemp, at the time the head of the Near & Middle East at the State Department - Saddam was “our son of a bitch”. [my emph.]

The Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, on the other hand, was relentlessly demonised by US government sources, and a steady stream of stories appeared about children who were sent to clear minefields armed only with plastic keys to the ‘pearly gate’ of martyrdom. Khomeini was the monster who had to be stopped by all means, even if it meant enlisting the support of neighbourhood gangster Saddam Hussein.

The first recorded use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war was in 1982, two years into the conflict. Both sides used them, but Saddam was the first, in response to Iran’s vast manpower that had begun to turn the tide on Iraq’s initial advances.

On more than one occasion, seasoned British foreign correspondents – very much the minority in the press corps - informed the British and American embassies in Baghdad of Saddam’s use of chemical weapons. It was even discovered that some of Saddam’s mustard gas was delivered by British-made artillery shells (although there is no suggestion of British involvement in modifying their use).

British and American diplomats refused to act on anything other than material evidence. They never sought such proof themselves, and knew full well that it was near impossible for we reporters to secure it. One journalist who tried, Farzad Bazoft of The Observer, was caught at Baghdad airport in 1989 with soil samples that would have provided crucial evidence. He was jailed, tortured, forced to sign a confession of being a spy, and executed on 15 March 1990.

A crime of war

Halabja was a turning-point because for the first time the evidence of chemical attack was impossible to ignore. The town had no military or economic value in itself, but control of it allowed access to a strategic road controlling a complex of water projects in north-east Iraq. The Iranians wanted to take it and it was the scene of heavy fighting.

According to a suppressed CIA report mentioned in the book The Iran-Iraq War: chaos in a vacuum by former CIA political analyst Stephen Pelletiere, the Iranians did use chemical weapons in the battle around Halabja.

It is certain that the town changed hands during the fighting and in a desperate attempt to fend off the Iranians, the Iraqi commanders ordered the use of mustard gas. There were at least two raids made by low-flying Iraqi aircraft spraying the gas - some Kurds claim there were more.

According to Pelletiere, the CIA report indicates that Kurdish civilians were collateral damage, and were not a deliberate target of Saddam. He also suggests that many deaths were caused by a cyanide-based gas, which was used by the Iranians, and not by the Iraqis.

I recall being invited by the Iraqi press attaché in London to the Brompton hospital to interview Iraqi soldiers being treated for the effects of poison gas. He claimed this was the result of Iranian attacks. I regret not investigating the story more fully at the time. I gave in to pressure from my editor who was convinced the Iraqis were affected by their own gas and not the Iranians’.

The Iranians flew an ITN camera crew which happened to be in Tehran straight into Halabja, together with agency photographers. It took three more weeks for the world to realise the full scale of the horror. Even at this stage, Washington and London were not interested in taking the story any further: they continued to support Saddam.

If it had not been for a number of honest journalists, and the US Congressman Peter Galbraith (who, a year later, fought to introduce an anti-genocide bill), the issue would never have been raised or debated in Congress.

Some commentators saw Halabja as Saddam’s vicious revenge against Kurdish disloyalty to him. It could also be seen as a warning of what might await them if they were to let their villages and positions fall into Iranian hands. Whether Saddam deliberately targeted the Kurds, or whether they were caught in crossfire as Iraq targeted Iranian soldiers, the fact remains that whoever gave the orders - Saddam or one of his officers - was fully aware that the theatre of deployment for this horrendous weapon was a mass of civilian men, women and children. That is a war crime.

Never again?

In the months that followed, Kurds were targets for Saddam’s gas in other villages north and west of Halabja. The Iranians were interested in the plains west of the town, and there is evidence that Saddam’s forces continued to use chemical attacks to fend them off.

Even after the war ended, Saddam continued to use chemical agents to settle scores with the Kurds. Beekeepers on the Turkish side of the border reported the death of their bees as the wind carried a whiff of poison gas that Saddam had sprayed miles away in Kurdistan. But official voices in Washington and London maintained their silence.

Now that Saddam is no longer the favoured ‘son of a bitch’ of Washington and London, the State Department and the Foreign Office make frequent reference to Halabja, trying to convince those of us who reported Saddam’s atrocities long before them, of what a monster the man is. These are some of the same people who tried to discredit us when we first reported his atrocities two decades ago. [my emph.]

The current anniversary of Halabja comes amidst a great debate about the real aims and reasons for the war over Iraq that is about to start. There are, however, few signs that western statesmen have given up their addiction to secrecy, double standards and double-talk.

There is no doubt that regime change in Iraq, and full implementation of UN resolutions to secure human rights, are universally desirable. The legal grounds for going to war are debatable, although Kosovo may be seen as a precedent.

Yet George W. Bush and Tony Blair have not served their cause by citing Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction as a reason for war (none of the dictator’s neighbours see these as a real threat) before switching the emphasis to Halabja and other atrocities. The lack of trust in these leaders’ honesty and good intention makes people doubt whether they will truly help ensure that a tragedy like Halabja never happens again.