Iraq

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Erdogan and the National Pact: the fallout today from the British Army’s seizing of Mosul in 1918

By Dr Rod Thornton

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently repeated his country’s long-held territorial claim to Mosul and the whole of northern Iraq. Such a claim is based on the belief prevalent in Turkey that this area had, as territory of the Ottoman empire, been illegally seized by the British in November 1918 after the First World War in the Middle East was over.

The facts are not in dispute. At the time of the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and Ottoman forces – brought about by the Armistice of Moudros on 31 October 1918 – Mosul and most of its surrounding vilayet (administrative area) were still in Ottoman hands. Advancing British troops were still some way short of the city. However, during the next month, British troops – without any fighting – pushed beyond the armistice line and removed demoralised and unresisting Ottoman forces from both Mosul city and its vilayet. Thus the British took control of what today is northern Iraq.

 What is in dispute is whether the British had the right to do this. Ottoman government protests that the British should have kept to the armistice line and that Mosul should have remained under its control came to be enshrined, post-war, in something called the National Pact. This had actually been promulgated by Kemal Ataturk himself in 1920 and long before he became the first president of the new Republic of Turkey in 1923. This Pact is a document which still has influence to this day within the Turkish body politic and is being quoted by Erdogan as he makes his claim to Mosul. Overblown rhetoric, maybe, but the danger for the future geopolitics of the Middle East is that Turkey, referring to the Pact, will see no legal impediment to its troops not only occupying large swathes of northern Iraq but also of northern Syria as well.

So, why did the British take the controversial action they did in 1918? Well, the then Ottoman prime minister blamed not so much the British in general, but rather the ‘sophistry’ of one individual British officer. This was the GOC Mesopotamia, General Sir William Marshall. Here was, indeed, a highly unusual case where one man – acting without orders and largely on his own initiative – may be said to have shaped the territorial boundaries of a significant portion of the modern Middle East.

Marshall had, near the end of the war and as the Ottoman army in Mesopotamia was rapidly weakening, been pushing his Anglo-Indian forces north from Baghdad (seized in April 1917). The view in the literature on this subject has it that Marshall had received orders from London to try and seize Mosul before war’s conclusion because of its oil potential. My research (mostly carried out in Erbil, 90 miles from Mosul) shows, however, that this was not the case. Marshall had no such orders. London, in fact, was showing very little interest in capturing Mosul. Rather, Aleppo and Baku were seen as the big regional prizes.

Marshall was moving towards Mosul for reasons of his own. He needed British control not just of the city of Mosul itself but also of its whole vilayet. This was for two reasons. The first was because he understood that the populations of the two Ottoman vilayets that the British had already occupied during the course of the war (Baghdad and Basra) could simply not be fed after the war if what was known as the ‘granary’ of Iraq – i.e. Mosul’s wheat fields – was still in Ottoman hands. For centuries, this granary had been supplying Baghdad and Basra. Marshall, who would be responsible for maintaining order in post-war Iraq, was aware that while there would be difficulties enough in trying to control southern Iraq’s fractious Sunni and Shia tribes his task might become insuperable if compounded by any inability of British authorities to actually feed the people of said tribes. By 1918, indeed, there were already severe food shortages across central and southern Iraq.

The second rationale for seizing Mosul was that Marshall needed to keep in situ the hundreds of thousands of Christians (some indigenous, but including many displaced Armenians) who were present in Mosul vilayet. If this region was not in British hands at war’s end then these Christians would doubtless flood south. They could then overwhelm the already taxed British system for dealing with the huge number of Christian refugees who, fleeing from Ottoman excesses in eastern Anatolia, had already arrived in southern Iraq.

As for the Ottomans, they had realised by October 1918 that they had to sue for peace quickly. They needed an end to hostilities before they lost more territory – including cities such as Mosul and Aleppo – to the general British advance north in Mesopotamia and Syria. The British likewise wanted a swift peace deal in order that troops could be transferred from the Middle East to the Western Front. Talks thus began on 26 October on a British battleship in Moudros harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos. They were conducted between Ottoman representatives and a Royal Navy delegation led by Vice-Admiral Somerset Gough-Calthorpe. He had been given carte blanche by British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George to negotiate on behalf of the Allies. An armistice was duly signed on 30 October and this was to come into force at midday the next day.

While Aleppo had by now been taken (on the 26th) by General Edmund Allenby’s troops operating in Syria, Marshall’s forces in Mesopotamia, advancing up the Tigris, were still some 12 miles short of Mosul. They had reached the town of Hammam al-Alil (much in the news today as the site of ISIS massacres). This was on 1 November. Marshall, hoping that his lead cavalry brigade could seize Mosul if allowed extra time to advance, did not actually tell his forward commanders that the war was over! Troops at the front were only informed of the armistice by the Turks themselves (under white flags). At Hammam al-Alil they were requested by Ali Ihsan Pasha – the Ottoman commander at Mosul – to return to the point they had reached when the armistice had been signed the previous day; i.e. back to Qayyarah. The ranking British officer at the front – Brigadier Robert Cassels – refused and stayed put to await orders.

 On 2 November, and three days after the armistice, Marshall, in Baghdad, did finally receive some orders from London to occupy ‘Mosul’. Marshall then conveyed this order to Cassels who, doubting it at first given that the war was over, asked for confirmation. Cassels assumed he could only enter the city if there was evidence of a breakdown of law and order (e.g, if Christians were being massacred). But all was quiet there. The order to occupy was, though, reiterated to Cassels and he conveyed it to Ihsan. The latter refused to vacate the city and a stand-off ensued. Ihsan made complaints about the British behaviour to his superiors. These were passed on to Gough-Calthorpe at Moudros. The admiral agreed with the Turkish position. He was of the opinion that nothing he had negotiated with the Turks on behalf of the Allies/British government covered the post-armistice seizure of any Ottoman territory not occupied at the time of the armistice – including Mosul. Gough-Calthorpe made his views known to the Admiralty in London.

To break the impasse, Marshall flew up to Mosul from Baghdad on 7 November. He ordered Ihsan, under duress, to not only vacate the city but also the whole of the vilayet as well. While he had his orders to occupy ‘Mosul’, it was not actually clear to Marshall what this meant. He was fairly sure it only meant Mosul city and not the whole vilayet as well. Marshall was thus taking a huge risk in making his own independent interpretations of both the wording of the Moudros Agreement and of his orders. He was using these interpretations in his negotiations with Ihsan. Hence he came to be accused by the Turkish prime minster of ‘sophistry’.

Ihsan again protested to Istanbul. But he was told not to oppose the British. The authorities in the Ottoman capital needed British diplomatic help in keeping Turkey-proper free from any post-armistice occupation by French, Greek and Italian forces. Thus they did not want to make an issue of Mosul.

Ihsan, in high dudgeon, resigned his commission and left the city. Marshall’s troops then moved in on 8 November and, in a swift operation and one for which Marshall took responsibility, went on to clear the entire vilayet of Ottoman forces up to what is roughly today’s border between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall, by his actions, had thus established a de facto if not an actual de jure border.

Curiously, in the British Official History of the war in the Middle East, Marshall received no praise at all for any of his actions as GOC Mesopotamia – including his seizing of Mosul. And yet by his actions he had added a vast area of – theoretically – tremendous economic potential to the British empire. This lack of praise is both highly unusual and telling. He must have done something that the British government could not approve of.

The Mosul situation had further negative consequences for Istanbul in that it had set a precedent. British troops in Syria could now, post-armistice and in light of what had happened at Mosul, also move forward and seize Ottoman territory right up to what is now, more-or-less, the current border between Syria and Turkey. The most significant town then taken was Alexandretta (today’s Iskenderun and part of modern Turkey). The commander there was one Mustapha Kemal – Kemal Ataturk himself. He, ashamed of what had happened at Mosul, wanted to fight the British troops as they approached Alexandretta. Gough-Calthorpe – again sympathising with the Turks – once more complained to the Admiralty.

Kemal was also told by his government not to oppose the British. The same rationale applied as with Ihsan at Mosul – the British could not be offended. Kemal, while protesting vehemently, obeyed. As it happened, the capitulations made over Mosul and Alexandretta did not, as hoped for by the Ottoman authorities, result in the garnering of any future assistance from the British. London raised little meaningful opposition to the subsequent occupation of Turkey by French, Greek and Italian forces.

Kemal never forgot his personal humiliation. In the post-war turmoil within Turkey, and as Kemal became involved in politics, he put forward the idea of the aforementioned National Pact. In his opinion, and thus also in the opinion of generations of Turks who were to follow, northern Iraq and northern Syria had been illegally seized by the British in operations that went against the wording of the agreement made at Moudros. These areas should, it follows, have remained within the Ottoman empire and thus they should have then become part of Ataturk’s modern Turkish republic. Erdogan agrees.

Image: Geographic map of Mesopotamia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 2)

This is Part Two of a two part series on the topic by Dr. Rod Thornton.

Dr Rod Thornton

Throughout Ottoman times and from probably much earlier, it was the agricultural produce of the Mosul vilayet that fed the people of the less fertile vilayets of Baghdad and Basra. Finished-goods trade went the other way. The three vilayets were thus an economic unit (hence they were referred to as the collective of Al Iraq). Therefore when Anglo-Indian troops seized Baghdad in March 1917 they had compounded a problem that had begun with their initial capture of Basra in 1914. If Mosul vilayet and its grain were still in Ottoman hands then how were these two cities and the rest of British-occupied Mesopotamia to be fed? Bringing in the necessary supplies through Basra port could only ever be a temporary expedient. This issue was adding to the general economic dislocation created already by the exigencies of war. There was the very real possibility of mass starvation and certainly of unrest caused by shortages. Lt.-Gen. William Marshall, commanding the Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force, and Arnold Wilson, the civil administrator there, realised that if they were ever to effectively control not just occupied Mesopotamia, but also any post-war Al Iraq that was designed to emerge from the war, then the ‘granary’ that was Mosul vilayet had to be seized from the Ottomans; and it had to be seized as quickly as possible.

Marshall and Wilson also wanted to have British troops occupying Mosul vilayet in order that its Christian minority stayed in place. If the vilayet was not occupied by British forces when the war ended then there would very likely be a mass exodus of these Christians south into those areas of Mesopotamia that the British had already occupied. Christian refugees had, throughout the war, been fleeing Ottoman excesses and moving down from Anatolia through neutral Persia and into British-held Mesopotamia. A vast refugee camp to house these refugees had been set up at Baquba. To keep these refugees fed even British troops had to go short of rations. Thus what Marshall and Wilson could not afford was another influx of Christians – fearing Turkish reprisals – as British forces closed in on Mosul. The whole vilayet had to be seized and, again, swiftly, in order to keep these Christians in situ.

Linking these two above rationales to occupy this vilayet was the important fact that it was predominantly the Christians who farmed the land of Mosul vilayet. Thus if they did flee, or if they had been massacred in Turkish reprisals, then who would grow the food that was vital in maintaining order in Baghdad, Basra, Najaf, Kerbala, et al? If British troops were in occupation of the whole of the Mosul vilayet, and not just the city, then the Christians would not only stay there but they would also keep farming and the situation could be saved.

For these above reasons, Marshall, was desperate to push on Mosul in October 1918. He was not, however, ordered to take the city, let alone its whole vilayet. He was actually told by the War Office in London to go in two directions – towards Aleppo and also (and merely) ‘up the Tigris’ (on which river Mosul sits).

Marshall convinced higher authorities in London that transport difficulties prevented him from moving towards Aleppo, but he could advance on Mosul. This was accepted by the War Office. So the aim now was to take Mosul in order, as Marshall himself put it in a letter home, that ‘the great granary of the Turks, i.e. Erbil district, would come under our control’. But his forces were being stretched and Marshall was moving on a city that he had no specific orders to take. He was thus sticking his neck out on two fronts. As he wrote to his brother on 30 October 1918, ‘there must be supplies in Mosul and we must risk the venture’.

The ‘whistle blew’ the next day, at midday on 31 October 1918. The Turks had finally sued for peace and the Armistice of Mudros had been signed. The negotiations for this agreement had been left in the hands of Royal Navy officers. The terms they produced were confusing and open to interpretation. At that time, Marshall’s troops were still some 12 miles short of Mosul city. According to the Turks, these troops should have maintained their position as per the armistice agreement. However, after a series of discussions between British and Turkish commanders and the application of force majeure, British troops went on to move in and occupy the city on 8 November. This was galling enough for the Ottoman high command but then, during the first two weeks of November, British forces went on to take possession of the whole of the rest of Mosul vilayet as well. They went right up to the rough line that constituted the northern border of Mosul vilayet (i.e. where Turkish-majority areas began). This line is almost exactly the border today between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall and his men had thus created ‘facts on the ground’ which were in his and Wilson’s interests rather than being the result of direct orders from London.

The Turks felt that they had been cheated by the British out of the Mosul vilayet. In 1920, the Ottoman parliament declared the Misak-i-milli (National Pact). This was a statement about the nature of the post-war boundaries of the new Turkish state that was still then being formed from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. This Pact had originally been proposed by Kemal Ataturk, who was soon to lead his revolution and become president of Turkey. The first stipulation of the six-point Pact covered the controversy over Mosul’s seizure (although without mentioning the region). ‘The future of the territories’, it stated, ‘inhabited by an Arab majority at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros will be determined by a referendum. On the other hand, the territories which were not occupied at that time and inhabited by a Turkish majority are the homeland of the Turkish nation’. The crucial phrase here is ‘at the time of the signing of the Armistice of Mudros’. At that point, of course, British troops were still 12 miles short of Mosul – a city with an ‘Arab majority’. A referendum to decide the city’s future never happened. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, this Pact appears to be claiming most of the Mosul vilayet as part of the ‘Turkish homeland’. This is because the Kurds – forming the majority of the vilayet’s population – were then known by the Turkish state merely as ‘Mountain Turks’, and not as a separate ethnic group. Again, by this logic the large measure of the vilayet not occupied by British forces at the time of Mudros should still therefore be part of Turkey given that it was populated by ‘Mountain Turks’.

According to many in today’s Turkish body politic – one now suffused, thanks to President Recep Erdogan, with neo-Ottomanist sentiment – there should be no border between Turkey and what amounts to today’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). It is the KRG which currently controls all of what may be seen as the old Mosul vilayet; bar, at the time of writing, Mosul city itself (in the hands of IS). In the future, there is always the danger that Ankara may, for a variety of reasons, feel that it has the right to ‘re-incorporate’ the KRG ‘back’ into the Turkish state with all the dangers that entails in terms of regional geo-politics.

 

Image: Wider strategic map showing the offensive in relation to the Northwestern offensive, as well as including the potential objectives of Kafriya and Al-Fu’ah. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Why Islamic State is wrong: Sykes-Picot is not responsible for controversial borders in the Middle East – but the British military is (Part 1)

This is Part One of a two part series on Sykes-Picot and the controversial borders of the Middle East.

Dr Rod Thornton

The Sykes-Picot Agreement, reached during the First World War by Britain and France, has recently been given renewed prominence. This has come about with the claim by Islamic State (IS) that this accord created the current borders of the Middle East – borders which are preventing IS from forming a region-wide Islamic Caliphate. IS, though, is wrong. Sykes-Picot is not to ‘blame’. It had actually been, quote, ‘rescinded’ by the British in October 1917, a year before the war ended. Sykes-Picot thus played no part in the setting up of any post-war borders in the Middle East.

These borders were, in fact, set primarily by the demands of the British military. It was ‘facts on the ground’ created by the advances, sometimes without orders, of British and Imperial troops during the war that ultimately shaped the map of the Middle East, not international agreements such as Sykes-Picot. These British advances (with intermittent retreats) were made northwards during the war from both Egypt and Basra (seized in November 1914) until the war in the Middle East ended in October 1918. They were made against an Ottoman opponent occupying, beyond Turkey itself, what is today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel/Palestine, Iraq and most of the Arabian peninsular.

The fundamental rationales behind the forward momentum of British troops, and thus behind the setting of today’s borders, were, in essence, and to borrow from Lord Ismay, to keep the French out; the Turks down, and the Christians in. My work concentrates specifically on the controversial establishing by British troops of one particular border as a ‘fact on the ground’. This border is that between today’s Turkey and Iraq. There are, currently, many in Turkey who claim that this border should not be there; that it was illegally set by British troops at the end of the war and that today’s Iraqi Kurdish region and the area around the city of Mosul are rightfully Turkish. Thus, according to this logic, and at the very least, Turkish troops today have the perfect right to cross over into Iraqi territory in pursuit of state interests or even to occupy northern Iraq.

Let’s deal with Sykes-Picot first. It was originally a Russian idea. It began to take shape when, in February 1915, Tsarist Foreign Minister Sergei Sazanov came to the British and French with a suggestion for how the three allies – confident of eventual victory over the forces of a decaying Ottoman empire – could carve up that defeated empire. The British MP, Mark Sykes, and a French diplomat, Francois Georges-Picot, negotiated on behalf of their governments. It was initially agreed that the Russians would occupy Constantinople, the Dardanelles and eastern Anatolia. Sykes and Georges-Picot then came to establish how their own countries would create their respective post-war ‘spheres of influence’ in the Levant, Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. It was accepted by Britain that the French, given their historical ties in terms of trade and as the self-proclaimed ‘protector’ of the Christian communities across the region, would be granted control of, or influence in, what is now Lebanon and Syria and a good deal of today’s Turkey. This was despite France having hardly any troops in the Middle East to help deliver any outcomes. The British, meanwhile, who would do all the fighting to gain the territories in question, would hold post-war sway in what is now Jordan, much of Palestine (bar an ‘international zone’ around Jerusalem) and the area around Baghdad and Basra. The remainder of most of the Arabian peninsular was to be left basically to its own devices. This was because of the need, in British Foreign Office-speak at the time, to avoid in that region ‘any entanglement with the Wahhabees’.

What was crucial in this whole Sykes-Picot project was that any putative British ‘sphere of influence’ did not abut against the area of Anatolia assigned to Russia – Britain’s traditional enemy in this part of the world. This would have occurred had the British taken control of the area around Mosul. Thus the French – long-term allies of the Russians – were, as part of Sykes-Picot, also to be allotted what was referred to as a ‘wedge’ or ‘lozenge’ of territory that ran from the Euphrates to the Persian border across what is today’s northern Iraq. This French area would act as a buffer between the Russians and British. It basically comprised the Ottoman vilayet (administrative region) of Mosul. The British were thus ‘claiming’ – of the three vilayets that together were even then known as Al Iraq – only those of Basra and Baghdad and not Mosul.

Sykes-Picot, ultimately signed in secret in May 1916, did not set any actual borders. The only forms of demarcation it had were some vague ‘partition lines’ drawn in thick lines on a very large-scale map. Boundary commissions, however, could sort out all the details later. These Sykes-Picot ‘lines’ were not totally arbitrary. In large part, they can be seen to be following the vilayet boundaries set by the Ottomans themselves. These boundaries thus must have been authorised by the Sultan himself – a man who was also the leader of the world’s Muslims; that is, he also acted as Caliph. Sykes-Picot can therefore be looked upon, and as a point of irony, as being at least in part based on boundary lines set by the Caliphate itself!

Sykes-Picot, however, was to run into trouble. In March 1917, a revolution in Russia brought to power Alexander Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Liberal in make-up, it felt no need to occupy anyone else’s territory. Petrograd thus told the British and French governments that Russia no longer had any post-war claims on any part of Turkish territory. (It was thus Kerensky’s government that pulled out of Sykes-Picot and not, as generally advertised, the later Bolshevik administration.) This meant, in particular, that if the Russians were reneging then there would no longer be any need for the British to have their buffer of the Mosul ‘wedge’. Thus if the British, later in the war, eventually come to occupy Mosul vilayet then they would not need to hand it over to the French. The Sykes-Picot plan needed to change. As a consequence, and according to a Foreign Office report of 22 October 1917, Sykes-Picot was now ‘no longer applicable’ and would have to be ‘rescinded’.

It actually took some time before the French were officially informed by the British that they would no longer be working towards implementing the agreement. It was only on 14 October 1918 that the British War Cabinet eventually approved the sending of a letter to the French Foreign Minister saying that Sykes-Picot was ‘out of date’. There was now, said the British, a need for ‘fresh conversations’ about the issue of the future of the Middle East.

Sykes-Picot as an agreement was thus to play no further part in the post-war shaping of the political make-up of the Middle East. Yes, French regional interests still had to be accommodated by the British – but not under the banner of Sykes-Picot.

While Sykes-Picot did very little to generate the current borders of the Middle East, another actor did considerably more. This was the British military. It was the demands of this military that ultimately created the facts on the ground which formed the basis for the majority of today’s borders. And while those created by British forces across other parts of the Middle East have their critics, the most controversial is undoubtedly the current border between Turkey and Iraq.

At the time of the Russian withdrawal from their part of the agreement, Anglo-Indian troops in Mesopotamia were still making their slow grind up from Basra and were just about to capture Baghdad (in April 1917). They were thus still some 400kms south of Mosul. But the eventual occupation of this city and its vilayet could, from this time, be treated as a distinctly British war aim and one no longer to be achieved merely in order to hand it over to the French.

But what were British war aims in Mesopotamia? The Anglo-Indian army there was given little in the way of firm direction as to what its goals should actually be. The primary role seemed to be to do nothing more than provide occasional victories against the Ottomans which would boost morale back in Britain. The public in Britain, however, picked up on this aimlessness and questions were being asked about why troops were being wasted in what seemed a pointless enterprise. Rudyard Kipling, indeed, was to write a suitably scathing poem in 1917 about this campaign called Mesopotamia.

By 1918, these troops in Mesopotamia were being diverted to provide support to the rather quixotic detachment of British forces – Dunsterforce – which was operating around Baku. Once this adventure had been concluded in September 1918, all that seemed to be demanded of British forces in Mesopotamia was that their advance northwards kept pace with that being conducted in the far more important campaign in Greater Syria. This was in case Ottoman forces took advantage of any possible flanking opportunities.

It has been suggested in a raft of literature both in the 1920s and also far more recently, that this movement north of British forces towards Mosul vilayet during the war was actually driven by the need to seize the region’s then supposed oil assets. There is, though, no evidence to support this contention. The movement towards Mosul was actually driven by a local need to gain another commodity far more important than oil – food.

 

Image: Map of Sykes–Picot Agreement showing Eastern Turkey in Asia, Syria and Western Persia, and areas of control and influence agreed between the British and the French. Royal Geographical Society, 1910-15. Signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot, 8 May 1916. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Chilcot: The Lessons of Iraq vs The Reality of Interventions

DR CHRIS TRIPODI

Chilcot’s exhaustive enquiry into the origins, undertaking, and consequences of the Iraq war has been published. In turn, this (rather less than) exhaustive analysis of certain of its conclusions seeks to explore two of the critical components of the faulty pre war decision-making process as identified by the report. It will propose that despite Chilcot’s pertinent and well meaning observations in this respect, and despite any prospective efforts to abide by those observations and incorporate them into our planning and strategizing for the purpose of future interventions should they occur, similar mistakes as those made in Iraq (not to mention Afghanistan and Libya) will most probably continue to be made.

What precisely then are the observations and recommendations referred to? They are, firstly, that ‘[W]hen the potential for military action arises, the Government should not commit to a firm political objective before it is clear that it can be achieved’. Secondly, and presuming that the achievability of the political objective as been recognized, that ‘[A]ll aspects of any intervention need to be calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour’. One would no doubt agree that these are highly pertinent observations, and that any rational interpretation of the events surrounding the Iraq intervention and its consequences would support such recommendations. Indeed in theory I would absolutely agree, and a recent article of mine has identified similar themes to Chilcot in these important respects. But that same article also identifies certain crucial elements that will always infect the rational use of military power for the purpose of liberal intervention, regime change and stabilisation, and which will always have the potential to derail rational political processes and designs.

With regard to the first point, that relating to the ‘achievability’ of political objectives. The former soldier turned academic Christopher Bassford puts it best in some ways. Responding to the oft bowdlerized warning that ‘[T]hose who do not remember the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them’, Bassford adds the refinement that, then again, even those who do remember the mistakes of the past are still condemned to repeat them. Because that’s what people do. It’s an unhelpful aspect of human nature; not the fact that lesson’s can’t be learned (of course they can), but the notion that on this particular occasion they simply don’t apply (when of course they do). But although Bassford’s observation may have been intended as a throwaway quip, it is rooted in scientific realities. For the purposes of this post, it draws attention to the concept of Construal Level Theory (CLT), a field of psychology that examines how people cope with the challenge of forming evaluations of distant actions and outcomes and in particular the way that they evaluate the latter phases of a sequence of actions.

Obviously, the keen eyed observer will note that I’m not a psychologist. But thanks to the research of Aaron Rapport in his article The Long and Short of It: Cognitive Constraints on Leaders Assessments of Post-war Iraq the non-psychologist becomes immediately aware of how these cognitive processes really matter in relation to political actors choosing to use force for interventionist purposes, particularly when it comes to the objective of dismantling or altering political and social structures in target societies. By extension therefore, one becomes aware of the potential for Chilcot’s warnings to remain unheeded in future.

Essentially, Rapport’s research argues that there is a difference in the way that policymakers approach certain aspects of an intervention such as Iraq. The first is the ‘near’ problem, which in the case of Iraq was the initial military campaign and the process of regime change. This is generally assessed on the basis of feasibility i.e. can we do this? However, the ‘far’ problem, in this case the subsequent long-game involving the transformation of Iraq from totalitarian dystopia to functioning democratic and unitary state, is subject to different criteria. In this instance, the determining factor is one of ‘desirability’ i.e. how much do we want this to happen? According to Rapport’s analysis, when ultimate objectives are so highly prized, policymakers tend to focus almost exclusively upon the benefits that will accrue rather than the intricate steps necessary to make them happen. As his conclusion states, this had the effect of encouraging overly-optimistic assessments of the political conditions that would exist in Iraq in the late stages of the intervention, a laissez-faire attitude that was not reflected by those involved in the short term planning relating to the initial military invasion and potential humanitarian crisis that was expected to follow. Simply put, the more distant the event, the more likely policymakers are to attribute positive outcomes to it. This has obvious implications for the mechanics of intervention, and the likelihood of political actors failing to properly conceptualise and resource the ‘long-game’ due to their over-optimistic belief in the satisfactory conclusion of their ultimate grand designs.

Chilcot’s second observation, that relating to the requirement for ‘all aspects of the intervention’ requiring the necessary ‘debate, calculation and challenge’ is similarly problematic. ‘All aspects’ of an intervention must, by definition, include that point subsequent to initial military operations. Yet, as my article points out, military interventions of the type engaged in by the West recently tend to transform the known into the unknown. The demolition of Ba’athist Iraq and the toppling of Ghaddafi released a vicious, swirling, directionless mass of competing ethnic groupings, tribes, sects, gangs, militias, warlords, terrorists and foreign elements, each with their own peculiar local, regional, national and transnational allegiances, alliances, economic interests and political aspirations. The notion that policymakers could have accurately considered and debated the innumerable permutations that may or may not have arisen is laughable. Donald Rumsfeld may have got many things wrong on the subject of Iraq, but his much derided articulation of ‘unknown unknowns’ i.e. ‘things you don’t know you don’t know’, perfectly highlights the problem facing those seeking to abide by Chilcot’s recommendations. Because what Chilcot is advocating in reality is that policymakers and their advisors, both military and civilian, must ‘debate, calculate and challenge’ not only the unknown, but potentially the unknowable too.

Image: Tony Blair and George W. Bush at Camp David in March 2003, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, via wikimedia commons.

 

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THE OTHER VIETNAM ANALOGY: TONY BLAIR, HAROLD WILSON AND THE ‘SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP’.

DR GERAINT HUGHES

Even before the release of the Chilcot Report on 6th July 2016 the reputation of Tony Blair was tarnished by the controversies surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War (2003-2009), his relationship with former President George W. Bush, and the flawed decision-making which took the UK into this conflict. One side-effect of Operation Telic is that it has contributed to the retrospective rehabilitation of another former Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, with particular reference to his reaction to the Vietnam War. Wilson is now praised for refusing to send British forces to fight in this conflict, and he has been held up as an example that Blair should have followed.

The comparisons between both conflicts and the leaders concerned are superficially attractive. Both involved Labour Prime Ministers who entered office comparatively young (in their late forties), on the back of electoral disaffection with a tired and discredited Conservative government, and both presented themselves as technocrats who were also down with the kids – Wilson gave the Beatles MBEs, Blair invited Noel Gallagher to No.10. Both faced a dilemma when a Texan President asked them to commit British troops to fight as part of a US-led alliance in a foreign conflict, and had to balance the strategic requirement to uphold the ‘special relationship’ with the political consequences of participating in a war condemned as illegitimate and unjust by a swathe of international opinion, not to mention the ranks of the Labour Party and a vocal anti-war movement.

At face value, Wilson made a significant – and, in the view of his latter-day defenders, brave – decision to refuse Lyndon Johnson’s requests for military support. The reality of the historical record is more complex.

Wilson was originally from the left of Labour, although by the time he became Prime Minister in October 1964 he had moved to the centre, and also selected a Shadow Cabinet from the ‘Atlanticist’ right of the party. During his first premiership (October 1964-June 1970) his two Chancellors (James Callaghan and Roy Jenkins), three Foreign Secretaries (Patrick Gordon-Walker, Michael Stewart and George Brown) and Defence Secretary (Denis Healey) were right-wingers who were firmly – if not uncritically – pro-American. Nonetheless Wilson preserved his links with the Labour left via Cabinet colleagues like Richard Crossman and Barbara Castle, and he was conscious that Vietnam was in issue which could fracture party unity. This became an increasingly greater problem as the war continued, and as the core of hard-left MPs were reinforced by more centrist colleagues who were appalled by the humanitarian suffering caused by the conflict, and feared that US escalation could provoke a disastrous war with China, and possibly the USSR too.

The Prime Minister was in a bind. The USA was not only Britain’s most important alliance partner, but was also providing financial assistance to prevent the devaluation of the pound. However, Wilson feared escalation, and also fretted over the fact that the conflict between the USA and North Vietnam undermined his efforts to promote improved Anglo-Soviet relations. Wilson did also share the humanitarian concerns of many Labour MPs over the war’s death toll, and had a genuine (if inflated) conviction that it was his role to play peacemaker. As a result, the Labour leader presented the Johnson administration with the following compromise.

Unlike Australia or New Zealand, Britain would not commit a contingent to fight in South Vietnam; officially because the UK was overstretched in the low-level war (or ‘confrontation’) with Indonesia over Borneo, and also because as co-chair of the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina it was obliged to promote a negotiated solution to the war in Vietnam. But unlike the French President Charles de Gaulle Wilson resisted appeals from Labour backbenchers to condemn US policy in Indochina, offering diplomatic backing for the American war effort, repeatedly declaring that Washington DC was fully justified in supporting the Saigon regime. In essence, British policy on Vietnam was to prove Johnson with all support short of troops.

The Chilcot hearings and the report show that in the run-up to the Iraq war of 2003 there was vociferous support – not just in Cabinet but also within the Chiefs of Staff (COS) and also the intelligence services – for a British contribution to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In contrast, Wilson’s compromise over Vietnam was essentially unchallenged in Whitehall. Although Cabinet colleagues like Stewart were prepared to publicly defend US policy, Cabinet Ministers, the Foreign Office, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Ministry of Defence and the COS alike were  collectively unwilling to commit British soldiers to a fight with the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army. The British armed forces were after all already overstretched by their NATO commitments, and also the ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) and the fruitless counter-insurgency campaign in Aden and South Arabia (1962-1967).

So even if Cabinet colleagues (notably the ever resentful and occasionally well-lubricated Brown) and Foreign Office diplomats were critical of Wilson’s posturing over peace proposals, the policy of non-involvement was never contested. The UK did find discreet means of assisting the US war effort – soldiers from the British Special Air Service on secondment with their Australian and New Zealand counterparts apparently did see combat in South Vietnam – but the idea of even a token overt commitment to the conflict (the ‘platoon of Highlanders with bagpipes’, as LBJ put it) was never seriously mooted in Whitehall.

Wilson hoped that his compromise would satisfy LBJ and the Labour left. It did neither. Johnson and his officials were privately contemptuous of the British Prime Minister, and regarded his repeated engagement with peace initiatives with ill-concealed scorn. Responding to one request for a summit meeting, LBJ replied (with typical profanity) ‘[we] have got enough pollution around here already without Harold coming over with his fly open and his pecker hanging out, peeing all over me’. Meanwhile, Wilson himself faced a barrage of invective and fury from anti-war activists, backbench MPs and press critics which was as vitriolic as that which Blair received forty years later. In April 1965 the satirical journal Private Eye printed a front page cartoon by Gerald Scarfe showing Wilson applying his tongue to Johnson’s rear – an image which makes the more recent renditions of Blair as Bush’s lapdog look tame.  Wilson also faced public displays of hostility which at times descended into violence. After one visit to Cambridge in October 1967 the Prime Minister was mobbed in his car by protesters who called him a ‘right-wing bastard’ and a ‘Vietnam murderer’, and he had to be rescued by police.

Wilson received little if any contemporary praise for keeping British boys out of the Mekong Delta or the Central Highlands, or for trying to get the US and North Vietnamese to the conference table. Domestic opponents of the war saw him as a hypocrite who facilitated American imperialism and war crimes against a small and weak South-East Asian country. The US President and his inner circle for their part despised him, regarding him as a faithless ally who had failed to come to their aid. This sentiment was expressed by the habitually Anglophile Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, during the last months of Johnson’s presidency, when he shouted at one Times journalist ‘[when] the Russians invade Sussex, don’t expect us to come and help you!’

After Chilcot, and with the memory of 179 servicemen and women killed in Iraq, it is difficult to see how Blair could get the same revisionist reappraisal that Wilson received after his death. Nonetheless, any historian who has studied the Prime Minister depicted as the ‘Yorkshire Walter Mitty’ will find it ironic that Wilson is being presented as the model that Blair should have followed with respect to Anglo-American relations and the Iraq war. For in the eyes of his contemporary critics, Wilson was as discredited and as compromised over Vietnam as ‘Bush’s poodle’ is now.

Images: Harold Wilson at a meeting with US Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara  and  Tony Blair at the 50th Munich Security Conference, 31st January 2014; photograph taken by Marc Müller, both via wikimedia commons.

President George W. Bush poses with G8 leaders during the Family Photo during the G8 Summit in Evian, France Monday, June 2, 2003. From left are President Jacques Chirac of France, Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi of Italy. WHITE HOUSE PHOTO BY ERIC DRAPER

Iraq: not the first British disaster … and it’s unlikely to be the last

DR CHRIS TUCK

After seven years, the Chilcot inquiry into the circumstances surrounding Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war finally has been released. Its conclusions are an excoriating critique of the limitations in British strategy and policy in 2003. The inquiry has identified a raft of issues: that war was not the last resort and that alternatives to military action were not fully explored; that the public case for war was built on evidence that did not reflect the uncertain nature of the actual intelligence; that the government was woefully unprepared for the post-conflict context; and that, in the end, Britain failed to achieve its key objectives. There may be many consequences. The Chilcot inquiry may reflect, as Sir Martin Gilbert has hoped, ‘an important milestone in government willingness to confront contentious issues’; or it may result in, as Alex Salmond as called for, the beginning of a ‘political reckoning’ for those most associated publicly with Britain’s decision to go to war. But Phillipe Sands, QC, has noted that the inquiry’s crucial role should be to ensure that ‘lessons will be learned that will allow us to make sure it never happens again’. Lessons undoubtedly will be identified, but whether they make another Iraq debacle impossible is more doubtful.

The eminent repeatability of the events of 2003 is evident when one examines two overarching themes identified by the Chilcot enquiry that weave themselves throughout the detail of the government’s decision-making over Iraq. The first is internal in nature, and it concerned the government’s decision-making processes; the second is external, and it was the priority accorded in British calculations to the ‘special relationship’ with the United States.

In terms of government’s decision-making processes in 2003, Chilcot notes their informality and ad-hoc nature. Cabinet often was informed of decisions rather than debating them. The inquiry identifies, in consequence, that there needed to be a ‘collective discussion by a Cabinet Committee or a small group of ministers’ on a number of crucial issues, including the political and legal implications of recourse to military options, and the potential difficulties in the post-conflict situation. In future, Chilcot recommends the creation of ‘a more structured process’ to ‘probe and challenge’ government options. Indeed, in such structures as the National Security Council, Britain already has more refined security policy decision-making mechanisms than existed in 2003. But it is doubtful if such changes would effect any revolutionary improvement in the quality of British strategy-making. The challenge for the Blair government in 2003 was the operation of two pervasive policy influences: uncertainty and beliefs.

There is generally in international relations an enormous gap between what decision-makers actually know as objective fact and what they would need to know to make fully considered, rational decisions. Decision-makers fill this gap with beliefs: beliefs about what it is right to do; beliefs about what will work and what the outcomes will be. Chilcot identifies Blair’s belief that Saddam Hussein was ‘a monster’ and that his regime represented a threat. This was reinforced by a set of ‘ingrained beliefs’ in government that Saddam had Weapons of Mass Destruction and that he would continue to develop them. Blair needed to make policy decisions but faced such uncertainties as the qualified conclusions of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), and competing perspectives on the nature of the post-conflict context. Political crises typically short-circuit formal decision-making processes and reduce the size of decision-making groups. Facilitated by the nature of British political system, which accords great informal powers to the Prime Minister, Blair did what many British Prime Ministers before had done, and took the lead in driving foreign policy. From a 2003 perspective, he also had perceived successes in Sierra Leone, Kosovo, and Afghanistan to support belief in his judgement. Blair has noted in his memoirs that in acting over Iraq he was doing what he believed was ‘right morally and strategically’. In conditions of uncertainty what is believed to make strategic sense often becomes a function of what a decision-maker believes that it is right to do. Tinkering with government decision-making processes cannot eliminate in the future the uncertainty problem; nor eliminate the psychological factors that have such an important bearing on crisis decision-making.

Shaping Blair’s belief in the necessity of action was the second theme: the influence of the United States on British policy considerations. The Chilcot report concludes that the UK’s relationship with the US was ‘a determining factor in the Government’s decisions over Iraq’. This influence is a long-standing theme in British foreign policy. But what the inquiry also illustrates is that, time and again, British influence over US decision-making was minimal. Britain’s shift towards involvement in the Iraq war was influenced powerfully by the Blair government’s belief, as Chilcot notes, that supporting the US over Iraq was necessary in order to sustain cooperation in other areas; and that the UK could best influence US policy towards Iraq ‘from the inside’. But generally, Blair’s government proved unable to exert a decisive influence on the US – indeed, the reverse was true: by prioritising relations with the US, British policy was forced by degrees into alignment with that of the US. As Chilcot illustrates, despite Blair’s post 9/11 commitment that the UK would stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with the US, he was keen on reigning back the US focus on military options, preferring instead a gradualist approach that would maintain international support and that might at some point look towards regime change. Progressively, however, in attempting to reign the US back, the UK was instead simply dragged forwards. Blair’s long note of 28 July 2003 included the phrase ‘I will be with you, whatever’. This phrase was contained in a missive whose general thrust was a desire to slow the US’ moves to the military option; but it also expressed a general truth about the realities of the British position. The Chilcot inquiry notes that, in 2003, Britain should have adopted a more questioning attitude. But whether, especially post-Brexit, Britain would be in future be more willing to risk a rift in Anglo-American relations is a matter of debate.

The specific issues identified by the Chilcot inquiry are a devastating critique of the Blair government’s handling of the Iraq crisis in 2003. However, it would be unwise to assume that the roots of the problems identified are new or that in the future they won’t be open to repeat. The decision-making difficulties that manifested themselves in 2003 reflect pervasive problems in foreign-policy decision-making relating to uncertainty. Equally, the priority placed upon the ‘special relationship’, and the influence therefore on the UK of US policy priorities, is a long-standing theme that is likely to endure. These factors can generate great policy difficulties but they do not make failure inevitable. For a war fought on questionable legal foundations, for example, see Kosovo in 1999; or for policies driven forward by Prime Ministerial fiat, see the Falklands War in 1982. Blair has argued that his decisions over Iraq were taken ‘in good faith and what I believed to be the best interests of the country’. It is entirely possible that this is true; but, unlike in Kosovo and the Falklands, Blair’s great problem is that Britain lost.

Image: Jacques Chirac, George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi during the G8 Summit in Évian, June 2003, via wikimedia

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WHY THE EU’S FOREIGN POLICY FAILS TO BREAK DOWN BARRIERS TO PEACE

By DR AMIR M KAMEL

At the 2016 International Studies Association (ISA) conference, I presented a paper arguing that the EU’s peace-through-trade policy failed in the cases of Iraq, Iran and Libya as it did not take into account the context in which it was being implemented, i.e. the barriers to peace. The paper draws from the theoretical argument concerned with the EU’s liberal idea of increased interaction leading to influence, something I articulated in a previous Defence-in-Depth post titled The EU: A Model For Economic Governance? This is an idea which I have been thinking and writing about (for the case of Iraq and Iran), and one which I am continuing to test in different case studies, hence the inclusion of Libya in my ISA conference paper.

The argument isn’t particularly sophisticated, indeed it is one which is often levied against liberally-inclined foreign policies. The novelty however lies in the contribution to the theoretical and policy targeted debates. I argue that the liberal theory-based EU policy of using economic ties (increasing trade in this instance) with an actor in order to achieve political goals (i.e. peace), is not being implemented in the manner in which the theory espouses. Indeed, the theory delineates that the economic ties can act as a carrot to induce an environment where peace can be achieved. For this to be true, the policy must be adopted in an absolute sense, i.e. for trade to be carried out when a country is at peace and NOT when it is in a state of conflict. However, the EU does not implement it’s foreign policy in this manner. It merely freezes trade agreements, transactions, updates and in some cases, renewals, in times of conflict. The result, in the case if Iraq, Iran and Libya was a continuing level of EU trade with the three states whilst they were embroiled in conflict (at different levels).

As a result, I argued in my paper (and my book), that the EU is not adopting it’s peace-through-trade policy in a manner which satisfies the theoretical assumptions upon which it is based. The line of argument continues to denote that the policy can therefore not be implemented in an ‘accurate’ way (in a theoretical sense), and thus undermining the fundamentals of the policy all together.

I therefore contend, that if the EU is truly dedicated to it’s self proclaimed peace-through-trade policy, then it must either adopt the policy in an absolute manner (as the theory dictates) or account for the different barriers to the policy succeeding by other means. Alternatively, the EU could go the other way and remove it’s peace-through-trade rhetoric and policy altogether.

Image: Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy; Vice-President of the European Commission, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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The UAE’s Jeffersonian Foreign Policy

DR DAVID ROBERTS

A small Arab Gulf State is not the first place in the Middle East that one might expect to fashion a foreign policy according to Thomas Jefferson’s dictum of the importance of separating church and state. Yet this is what the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is doing. Key leaders in the state believe quite deeply in the importance of separating where practical the influence of organised political Islam from political affairs. This central premise has been guiding and driving the UAE’s foreign policy particularly since the Arab Spring.

In Libya the UAE joined in NATO’s operation unified protector to protect the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. The UAE then became involved on the ground supporting specific types of groups and political actors. While Qatar, for example, tended to support Islamists of one variety or another, the UAE purposefully supported nationalist-orientated groups (such as the al-Qaqa Brigade and the conglomerate surrounding the Zintan brigades) ranged Qatar’s Islamists. More notably, the UAE emerged in mid-2014 as the central backer of General Haftar, the former Libyan military commander who returned from exile in the US to lead an anti-Islamist crusade – Operation Dignity. The UAE not only supported him and his movement diplomatically and with materiel, but the New York Times reported that UAE fast-jets and special forces were used to support Haftar in his fight against Islamists.

Elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa region, support for nationalists or at least actors other than Islamists, is also evident in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Yemen. Though there are exceptions, these are notable by their rarity and thus reinforce the overarching principle.

This Jeffersonian policy stems from lessons drawn by modern-day leaders from the domestic Emirati experience with political Islam. The local chapter of the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation – called al-Islah – opened in the UAE in 1974. It soon gained particular traction and influence in the northern emirates of the federal UAE that happen to be far poorer than those in the south (i.e. Abu Dhabi, the capital, and Dubai). Al-Islah members from Ras al-Khaimah, one of the UAE’s northern emirates, even became federal ministers in the 1980s.

But this growth in power of a foreign-born social group unnerved leadership in Abu Dhabi. From the late-1980s onwards, leaders in Dubai and particular Abu Dhabi began to – as they see it – negotiate with al-Islah to lessen their overt influence on Emirati society. But these negotiations did not work and relations worsened between the two antagonists. Eventually, after foreign al-Islah members were deported and others were fired from their jobs, two Emiratis from the norther emirates took part in the attacks of 11 September 2011 and the fears of those in Abu Dhabi were realised. A greater crack-down ensued, yet still al-Islah refused to be cowed or follow its sister Muslim Brotherhood group in Qatar that dissolved itself voluntarily in 1999. But the Arab Spring was the final straw. It was proof positive for the Abu Dhabi elite as to the insidious nature of Muslim Brotherhood organisations that seemed to wait at the fringes of societies, preaching about social issues only to take power as soon as the opportunity emerged. In reaction to the Spring, the Abu Dhabi-led government instituted aid packages and extra subsidies aimed mostly at the norther emirates to forestall any early grumblings of discontent, and they banned groups like al-Islah, and arrested hundreds of its members.

This experience then came to guide the UAE’s foreign policy as a whole under the rubric that organised political Islam should not be supported but needed to be opposed. While such a policy based on a key tenet of US political thinking may curry favour for the UAE the beltway, there are two key problems with the thesis. Firstly, a Jeffersonian approach to foreign policy can never be applied towards Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s behemoth neighbour that institutionally mixed religion and politics. This rhetorical problem becomes a practical problem when both states are engaged in the same environment as with their intervention in Yemen. Here, the two states are operating with different tactical principles in important strategic cities like Taiz. Saudi Arabia is actively seeking to use local al-Islah commanders in their wider war, while the UAE appears to be far more reluctant to empower such groups.

Secondly, and linked to this point, is the fact that the UAE will need to compromise given that so much of the discourse is dominated by religion throughout the Middle East. Pursuing an active and pure Jeffersonian policy will be, in other worse, something of a challenge overall. Though the UAE can certainly support nationalists or other non-Islamist groups, they will rarely be in the majority.

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This post is based on Mosque and State: The United Arab Emirates’ Secular Foreign Policy published by Foreign Affairs on 18 March 2016.

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Thinking the Unthinkable over ISIL

This is the third in a series of posts to come out of the Regional Security Research Centre (RSRC) organised Round Table titled ‘Decoding IS [DAISH] – Retrospect and Prospect’, which took place on 8 February 2016. The Round Table covered issues concerned with the evolution, regional linkages, strategy and tactics, as well as the future prospects of IS [DAISH].

By DR SAMIR PURI

Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the war in Syria have focussed on managing the conflict between the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and the multi-faceted Syrian opposition. On 22 February, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) announced a ‘cessation of hostilities’, brokered by the US and Russia, to begin five days later. When it comes to ISIL, the statement of the ISSG specified that:

Military actions, including airstrikes, of the Armed Forces of the Syrian Arab Republic, the Russian Armed Forces, and the U.S.-led Counter ISIL Coalition will continue against ISIL, “Jabhat al-Nusra,” and other terrorist organizations designated by the UN Security Council.

In other words, the diplomatic effort has attempted to ring-fence the war against ISIL and the less prominent threat of the al-Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. But, what if the numerous parties mentioned in this statement simply cannot wage a concerted war against ISIL? Indeed, the war effort against ISIL comprises of a messy patchwork of competing interests. Russia wants to back Assad, as does Iran, through it’s urging of Hezbollah to deploy there. Iran also wants to deepen its influence in Iraq, which has been in the ascent since the US-led Coalition toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Turkey wants, above all else, to remove the Assad regime and check Kurdish gains, while the Kurds fight ISIL to safeguard their territory and to boost their autonomy. Western countries may implore others to focus their efforts against ISIL. But fighting ISIL is rather far down the list of priorities for others.

What if, in years to come, the piecemeal war effort against ISIL fails to roll back the group’s control of territory, and perhaps only manages to keep it under pressure and contained? Will ISIL then have to be spoken to? Contemplating negotiations with ISIL means thinking the unthinkable (a term coined by Herman Kahn during the Cold War). The idea is as much abhorrent as it is unfeasible to envisage, given the scattered territory controlled by the group, the violence it uses to manage its rule, and the hatred it engenders amongst so many around the world. A group so wedded to nihilistic violence and an apocalyptic vision, with a seemingly maximalist desire for expansion, surely could never be spoken to. This is certainly true, but one must not assume permanence in the situation as it is today. The question, therefore, should be rephrased. Could ISIL ever become a fixture on the map of the Middle East? The kind of permanent entity, seemingly impervious to being dislodged and degraded by military pressure, that others have no choice but to work around?

There are no prospects for this at all in the short or medium term. The West wants to destroy ISIL, not talk to it. Moreover, ISIL does not appear to want to exist in a world of states. But, in decades to come, if it can withstand the military campaign against it, ISIL, or its forebears, may need to be dealt with in ways that extend beyond aerial bombing. The unthinkable may be no less palatable in ten or fifteen years from now. But if ISIL still exists, it may become important to consider.

As I argue in an Adelphi Book, which is forthcoming in summer 2016, the perceptions held of armed groups can experience enormous transitions if they manage to perpetuate their existence for decades. Certainly, when Hezbollah carried out a suicide bomb attack on US Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, or when the Taliban came to global prominence after abetting al-Qaeda’s September 2001 attacks, nobody could have assumed the continued existence of these groups today. Few would have thought that Hezbollah would become part of Lebanon’s government. Or that the Taliban would absorb the punishment of a fifteen-year NATO military campaign, only to be the subject of an overture by the President of the USA for reconciliation talks.

There is currently no path and no prospects for ISIL to ever achieve any kind of status of this nature. It is absurd, off-putting and defeatist to even contemplate such a future. But that is precisely what thinking the unthinkable asks of us. If the civil war in Syria fails to abate, and the UN effort in support of Security Council Resolution 2254 fails to make progress, efforts to eradicate ISIL’s hold over territory in Syria will be hindered. This, tragically, is not so unthinkable. The patchwork nature of the anti-ISIL campaign is ISIL’s to exploit.

Image: Secretary Kerry Chats With UN Secretary-General Ban Before Hosting the International Syria Support Group Meeting in New York City, 18 December 2015. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Uncertain COINage

DR GERAINT HUGHES 

Military manuals do not often attract readers from outside of the profession of arms, and the publication of the US Army/US Marine Corps’ manual on counter-insurgency (FM3/24) by the University of Chicago Press ten years ago was one of those rare occasions where military doctrine gained an audience beyond the armed forces. FM3/24 attracted wider attention because of Iraq, and the protracted insurgency in which US and Coalition forces had become embroiled after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime (March-April 2003). The US armed forces (the Army in particular) had focused almost exclusively on inter-state warfare, and as a result they were collectively unprepared for the challenges of occupying and pacifying Iraq following Saddam’s fall. Abu Ghraib, Haditha, the two battles of Fallujah, mounting American military casualties, and an increasingly disastrous sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis forced the Army and Marines to rethink their approach to counterinsurgency (COIN). The adoption of FM3/24 – and the ‘surge’ of troops into Iraq in 2007-2008 – appeared to herald a ‘COIN revolution’ in American military thinking, and indeed one of its authors (General David Petraeus) became a household name as a consequence.

Britain also had a reality check over Iraq, and subsequently Afghanistan too. Before 2003 there was an academic and professional consensus that the British Army had an instinctive talent for COIN, based on their experiences fighting guerrillas and terrorists from Palestine in the 1940s to Northern Ireland (1969-1998). The experience of peace support operations (PSO) in the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone appeared to provide added justification for this myth, with squaddies being supposedly attuned to the complexities of ‘hearts and minds’; possessing the inherent ability to both cow potential adversaries while winning over the local populace with ‘soft posture’ patrolling and the ‘cultural understanding’ that came from phrase-book chit-chat. The increasingly violent occupation of Basra (2003-2007) and the ferocious fighting experienced in Helmand showed that in fact the British armed forces were no more masters of COIN than their superpower allies were.

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British colonial police on a patrol in Malaya, April 1949, picture taken from Wikipedia Commons, originally from BBC Hulton Picture Library.

The myth of a ‘British way in counterinsurgency’ – relying on the judicious and humane application of minimum force and ‘hearts and minds’ – has been comprehensively debunked by David French, Karl Hack , Huw Bennett and other historians who have pointed out that the UK’s COIN history was far bloodier and more brutal than received wisdom admitted. The Kenya Emergency in particular was a ‘dirty war’ in which British colonial forces committed particularly egregious atrocities in order to crush the Mau Mau. David Ucko  has also pointed out that the distinctions drawn between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ models of COIN also fade with closer scrutiny. Dictatorships may use overwhelming force and terror to crush internal rebellions, but have also used popular mobilisation and the ‘carrot’ of development and socio-economic reforms to build support for their regimes.

Nonetheless, American and British doctrine aspires to match democratic norms and contemporary ethics with COIN, and both FM3/24 and AFM1/10 (its UK equivalent) draw a distinction between ‘enemy-centric’ and ‘population-centric’ operations. In the former, the government side uses maximum force and exemplary violence to smash the insurgents and to terrorise the civilian population into obedience, whereas the latter stresses the protection of the populace from violence, the adoption of reforms to address the grievances that led to the insurgency, the recruitment and development of indigenous security forces able to defend the population, and a policy of reconciliation to negotiate a political solution to the conflict. Both the US and British militaries currently express a preference for the latter over the former.

The distinction is, however, to a considerable degree an artificial one. No state fighting an internal foe can follow a purely ‘population-centric’ approach, not least because it is very difficult to do state-building and war-fighting concurrently. It is both humane and strategically sensible for Western militaries to exercise ‘courageous restraint’ (to use Stanley McChrystal’s term), and to be discriminating in targeting (say) the Taliban rather than Afghan civilians, but there is the risk of forgetting that there is an enemy that has to be fought and beaten. With my own research on Oman, it became clear that Sultan Qaboos’ much-vaunted development of Dhofar was subordinated to a largely military effort by the Sultan’s Armed Forces (SAF), their Iranian allies and their British advisors to defeat the Popular Front guerrillas. The civil affairs effort and socio-economic reforms had to wait until the ‘adoo’ (enemy) had been driven into South Yemen, and were no longer in a position to offer an armed challenge to Qaboos’ regime. Insurgents are also more often than not part of the indigenous community, and their relatives and clan may not be receptive to appeals to rally to the government’s side. With reference again to Dhofar, the Popular Front still had a base of sympathisers within the local community even after their formal defeat in December 1975, and the province was by no means ‘at peace’ even after Qaboos declared the insurgency over.

M.L.R. Smith also reminds us of the problems of terminology. The special forces of state armed forces all practice ‘guerrilla’ or ‘irregular warfare’. The Cold War-era term of ‘revolutionary war’ doesn’t allow for conflicts where there is a popular rebellion against a radical regime; as was the case with the Vendee in Revolutionary France in the 1790s, the Christeros in Mexico in the 1920s, or the Afghan mujahidin in the 1980s. Scholars have yet to provide a precise and commonly agreed definition of the difference between an ‘insurgent’ and a ‘terrorist’; in Syria now, the Assad regime uses this term to describe all of its opponents. Distinctions between insurgency and organised criminality were blurred with the racketeering of Republican and Loyalist gangs in Northern Ireland both during and after the ‘Troubles’, and with the current terror campaign by the Mexican drug cartels.

Much is made of the ‘narrative’, and its value almost as a war-winning weapon in convincing the local population to back your cause. Yet a ‘narrative’ revolving around a better future, and of peace and prosperity for all, will lack conviction if no one believes you can deliver it. The Taliban were not popular in Afghanistan even during the height of the NATO intervention, and it is clear that the majority of Afghans fear their return to power. Yet this has had no appreciable effect on their campaign at all. They are still in a position to destabilise the country and discredit its government, particularly now that the majority of NATO forces have returned home.

It is also perhaps worth asking whether COIN should still be discussed as a distinct type of war. The presumption with ‘guerrilla warfare’ is that insurgents are materially weaker than government forces, but the Viet Minh in Indochina in the early 1950s, UNITA (the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in Angola in the 1980s, and the Eritrean and Tigrayan rebels who overthrew Mengistu’s regime in Ethiopia in 1991  all acquired the means to wage ‘conventional’ land warfare – including armour and heavy artillery – whether this was captured after battle or supplied by a foreign patron.

Insurgencies can involve ‘regular’ military forces, particularly in the context of a proxy war, and there are historical examples that precede the Russian intervention in Ukraine. The ‘confrontation’ in Borneo (1962-1966) started with British forces fighting indigenous rebels in Brunei, and ended with an undeclared war with cross-border raids by the Indonesian military and the SAS. During the latter phases of the Dhofar war the Marxist-Leninist regime of South Yemen had committed 250 soldiers to fight the SAF, and by the autumn of 1975 there was a clear risk that the Popular Front revolt could lead to all-out war between Oman and South Yemen.

The presumption that insurgencies can be hermetically sealed within a state has been disproved not only by the current wars in Syria and Iraq – involving Syrian and Iraqi regular forces and militias, Kurdish peshmerga on both sides of the old Sykes-Picot frontier, Daesh, Hezbollah, the Russians, the various Syrian rebel groups and the US-led Coalition – but in Southern Africa in the 1970s-1980s. The apartheid-era South African Defence Force (SADF) conducted COIN against the military wing of the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) during South Africa’s illegal occupation of Namibia, but the SADF also conducted cross-border raids into Angola to destroy SWAPO bases in that country, while Pretoria backed UNITA’s struggle against government forces (FAPLA) in the Angolan civil war. The culmination of this multifaceted struggle came with the battle of Cuito Cuanavale (August 1987-March 1988), pitting SADF and UNITA against FAPLA and a Cuban expeditionary force. The South Africans may have been originally fighting the SWAPO insurgency, but they ended up fighting a ‘conventional’ war.

In summary, we should remember Carl von Clausewitz’s description of war as an act of violence in which the belligerents intend to compel their foe to submit to their will, and his observations that combat is a reciprocal process, and that wars are fought for political objectives. Clausewitz also stated that it was necessary to understand every conflict you waged on its own terms, and that ‘the first, the grandest, and the most decisive act of judgement which the statesman and general exercises is rightly to understand in this respect the war in which he engages, not to take it for something, or wish to make it something, which by the nature of its relations it is impossible for it to be’.

As Clausewitz put it, ‘[everything] is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult’. It would be highly dangerous for governments and their armed forces to be seduced into the logic of ‘clear, hold, build’, and to assume that they can fight a ‘pure’ and binary (government v insurgents) campaign that does not account for the possibility of proxy warfare, internecine conflicts involving multiple actors, state failure, and the potential for either escalation or metastasised violence across borders. Indeed, the characteristics of current conflicts in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere suggest that the terminological distinctions between COIN, PSO, ‘stabilisation’, and ‘major combat operations’ are potentially becoming increasingly less relevant.

Image: Yemeni Army soldiers, August 2011, via the Al Jazeera Creative Commons Repository.