Archive for the 'Middle East' Category


Needed: a Geneva Convention for the 21st Century

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

The world of warfare has changed and its rules need to catch up

My wife and I were recently watching the excellent More4 drama series Saboteurs, about the Nazi effort to build an atomic bomb and the Allied operations to stop them, principally by putting the Norwegian factory producing the heavy water needed for the atomic reactor out of action. At one point, the Norwegian commandos take off their winter white camouflages before beginning their assault into the factory wearing their regular fatigues – something my wife commented was a bit of a strange thing to do. And on one level it was: the uniforms were much more obvious to the German guards (or should have been). On the other hand, their action was in line with a very old tradition of war: that soldiers can be readily identified by their enemies and distinguished from civilians.

So what, you might ask. The point is to illustrate the revolution that’s taken place over the last seventy years in the nature of the kind of wars fought, and particularly fought by Western powers. Which is a problem because the rules of war – largely written by Western powers – are designed to regulate the sort of conflicts which are now very rarely fought and are not designed for the sort of conflicts which are: intervening in civil wars or failed states and fighting groups which exist in a legal twilight zone; armies without states (or at least, without a widely-recognised state).

Which is where the deaths of two British jihadists in Syria, at the hands of an RAF drone, comes in. Britain is not at war with Syria, nor in targeting ISIL operatives is it acting under a UN mandate. There may well have been evidence to connect the two to a terrorist plot against Britain but even if so, does that justify their immediate deaths? Does it make a difference that they were fighting in a civil war zone? Indeed, what was their status in Syria? What rights and responsibilities does the government have in protecting its law-abiding citizens? For that matter, under the HRA, what responsibilities does it have to its law-breaking jihadist ones in Syria or elsewhere? How do you even ‘go to war’ against any entity other than a state never mind something as amorphous as ISIL?

These questions, and many others like them, lie at the heart of the problem of trying to provide a legal basis for governments to intervene in civil wars and failed states, and against non-governmental armies, militias or terrorist organisations. Not the least of the problems is in regulating when countries can intervene. At what point do security or humanitarian concerns override the sovereignty of the state in question?

What is really needed is a greatly updated Geneva Convention, to regulate and provide the mechanisms for legitimising the actions of states intervening in these situations. This is diplomatically difficult stuff because to do that confers a legitimacy on the non-state parties, and hence gives rights not simply to treatment but to recognition as something close to an equal. Many would understandably baulk at the notion that terrorists should be considered a legal entity, never mind a proto-state (that some terrorists have been successful in transforming themselves in to proto- then fully-fledged states will increase rather than diminish that reticence). It’s also asymmetric: the parties to a new Convention would have obligations to their enemies that the organisations they’re fighting against in many cases not themselves honour.

Yet the alternative is the kind of legal quagmire that now exists, where rules are made up on the hoof on the basis of what seems appropriate at the time. Public opinion might accept that but human rights groups – and potentially the courts – will not. A drone strike against a jihadist fighting for ISIL and planning attacks against the UK may well be justified, even when in another country, but what hoops should be jumped through first to be sure? And how do you extrapolate from that specific example to create a framework for the general case?

Put simply, how can the international community come up with a set of rules that allows states to lawfully and effectively protect their populations against external threats, and to protect vulnerable and innocent civilians in countries afflicted by conflict, while simultaneously not giving the green light to states to use those same rules to oppressive ends?

Finding an answer to that question will be no simple task but in Human Rights legislation makes it essential all the same. In the first place, and in the absence of an international agreement, parliament needs to pass domestic legislation to do the same job.

David Herdson


Syria: a call to alms?

Saturday, September 5th, 2015

One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic. Trite and perhaps misattributed though that quote is, it has probably never been more true than this week when the image of one young boy on a Turkish beach did more to highlight the plight of Syrian people than any number of reports of the death toll in the conflict (about 240,000 so far, including 12,000 children), or of the number of displaced people (more than 12 million – half the population of Syria – with more than 4 million outside the country). Numbers are abstract; Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless, crumpled but seemingly uninjured body was shockingly real.

Inevitably, public revulsion at the sight of innocent and unnecessary death prompts generates an emotional response that ‘we must do something’. And here is the point at which politicians earn their money because the public’s demands are wrong and they need to be told so.

For the fact is that being more open to refugees is largely unrelated to the problem at hand and some would in all probability make it worse. The breast-beating that Britain should ‘take more’ and the unseemly bidding between countries for moral virtue with public money has little to do with improving the lot of those millions displaced. Indeed, effectively encouraging illegal entry into the EU will in all probability lead to more drownings, more misery and more money being channelled into organised crime and terrorism. It is also a solution most open to the fit and healthy and the moderately well-off; the poor and the weak will still be left behind.

So if the public really want to help rather than to do something that will make itself feel better then the problem needs to be dealt with at the point where those fleeing Syria become refugees, not after they’ve already travelled hundreds or even thousands of miles.

The reality is that relatively few Syrians become asylum seekers in Europe. Of the more than four million displaced outside their country, 1.6 million are in Turkey, 1.2 million in Lebanon (a country of only 4.5 million in normal times), over 600,000 in Jordan and 250,000 in Iraq. In other words, the vast majority have stayed in the countries bordering Syria. It would be far better to focus the humanitarian effort on improving the living standards of the refugees in these countries – providing better accommodation, better medical facilities, education for children and care for the elderly and vulnerable – rather than rewarding the winners of the trafficking lottery.

There will no doubt be those who will note with cynicism that such an initiative (which Britain does quite a lot of already, as it happens), could be viewed as a means to appease the anti-immigration lobby and keep the refugees out. To do so, however, would be to place the perceived moral virtue of those making the case above the needs of the refugees. Usually, it is better to be wrong for the right reason than right for the wrong one (as if your values are right then chances are that so the majority of decisions will be in the long term). This is an exception: the stakes are so high with regard to the effectiveness of whatever policy is decided upon that here it is better to be right for the wrong reason.

Not that the anti-immigration lobby is wholly wrong. ISIS has already said that it has smuggled fighters into Europe as refugees. Whether it has and indeed whether it would need to when it’s recruiting fighters from Europe is obviously unknown but there can be little doubt that it would only take one or two outrages carried out by their supporters given asylum to turn public opinion on its head again. That might be a risk worth running were a policy of offering mass refuge the only means of preventing a disaster – but it isn’t.

However, even dealing effectively with the refugee crisis is not really getting to the root of the problem, which is the war itself and it is that to which the international community should put their collective minds.

At some point, the war will end, either in stalemate or in victory for one side or another. Early on in the conflict, it might have been possible for a moderate anti-Assad force to have won. No longer. The only realistic alternatives now are ISIS and the Assad regime. Clearly, neither is palatable to Western opinion but that does not mean that neither is preferable. For all that Assad leads a bunch of thugs, they are considerably better than the murderously oppressive alternative. It would clearly be embarrassing to Western leaders to have to back Assad having previously (and rightly) condemned his actions but what are the alternatives? Do nothing and let the war drag on resulting in more death, more destruction and a political outcome almost certain to be no better? Create and sponsor a third viable force – but how and from where? Back ISIS? Intervene directly on the ground and suffer thousands of casualties? Attempt to broker a peace between two sides who clearly don’t want it and won’t keep it? When all the options are bad you look for the least bad.

To take such an option would inevitably lead to a great deal more criticism from the morally righteous but the only realistic practical alternative – to do nothing other than try to ameliorate the worst effects of the war – amounts to the hoping for the same outcome while doing nothing to bring it about; something that smacks not only of moral cowardice but of rank hypocrisy too given that a prolonged war almost certainly means a more deadly and destructive one. An ISIS victory would also pose a direct threat to the security of virtually any country in the world.

So what of those who took to Twitter and Facebook in response to the photos from Bodrum this week? In the first place, that outpouring of sympathy needs to be redirected into an effective aid solution – idealism without application is nothing – and there both media and governments have a role to play in widening the focus beyond the Mediterranean. But the bigger and the more difficult piece is in accepting and explaining that no solution available in Syria is really satisfactory. At the moment, no-one, not in Europe and not in North America, seems willing to do so – so the killing will go on, more innocents will die and the chaos will spread.

David Herdson


Syria: Whose Mandate?

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

(Flag of Syria under French Mandate – From Wikimedia Commons)

Imperial echoes in the Middle East

Much of the debate surrounding potential military action in Syria has focussed on two aspects: what effect would such action have, and would it be lawful as things stand. In a sense, the two are linked in an unusual way. The normal reasons for intervening militarily are for one government to force a change of policy upon another, or to impose a settlement on an area.

Although there’s been some talk about deterring Assad from authorising further chemical attacks through air- or missile-strikes, those same politicians have been much quieter about they envisage such action affecting the situation on the ground.

And not without reason: Syria’s civil war is one that Western governments are keen to see end but distinctly less enthusiastic about seeing either side win. Changing the situation on the ground by striking against the Assad’s forces not only makes it more likely that his opponents will end up victorious but makes those governments involved partly responsible for the outcome – which could place some highly unsavoury characters in power.

Hence the attempt to raise the level of debate from that of power to one of justice, where the air-strikes aren’t about intervention but punishment for a crime against humanity (ignoring the fact that whatever the justification, the effect will be the same). Under such thinking, the strikes cease to come from an active participant but from a higher authority, concerned with means rather than ends.

The problem with that is that those who would see themselves in such a role are self-appointed. There is no United Nations backing for air strikes (indeed, the Security Council hasn’t been able to pass any resolution on Syria for over a year), nor are states enforcing the verdict of some international court.

The argument advanced is that the action is justified by the Duty to Protect, though it’s dubious just how far citizens will be protected by the lobbing of even more explosive into the country. There is also rather a biting irony of states wishing to impose a quasi-judicial sanction on a regime, while quite possibly acting outside the law in doing do.

Not that outside intervention is a new thing to Syria. From its incorporation into the Roman Empire by Pompey in 64BC, that part of the Middle East spent almost all of the next two millenia under the sway of one imperial power or another based far from Damascus. Most recently, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, it was a French League of Nations mandate.

One has to wonder whether that has anything to do with the current French government’s keenness to be involved. Ten years ago it was the British government participating in a war in its former Middle East mandate next door, so whether by chance or design there’s a pattern there and one which is unlikely to have gone unnoticed within the region.

David Herdson


Thanks to Double Carpet, you can view the results of the Australian election, live, here


CON and UKIP voters are becoming more supportive of missile attacks on Syria – LAB and LD ones more hostile

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

This is looking more partisan

The above chart has been produced by taking the party splits on the Syrian missile issue and comparing them with the data from a week yesterday.

As can be seen the net support/oppose numbers have overall moved more towards the latter. But both CON and UKIP voters have become more supportive of the proposal. The latter is in a manner that appears at odds with Farage’s high profile anti-position.

Labour voters have moved sharply to the oppose camp while the Lib Dems have seen the biggest movement in that direction. This is odd given the high level hawkish position of ex-leader Paddy Ashdown and the supportive role of Nick Clegg.

My reading of the CON movement is that it reflects the attacks on EdM that we’ve seen from many quarters

Given that we are just about to enter conference season I wonder how all this will play out.

Mike Smithson


Betting on Will There Be Another Government Sponsored Commons Vote On Military Intervention In Syria By Year End?

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2013

Paddy Power have launched a market on Will There Be Another Government Sponsored Commons Vote On Military Intervention In Syria By Year End?


David Cameron said today ‘Parliament spoke very clearly and it’s important to respect the view of parliament so I’m not planning to return to parliament to ask again about British military action.’

Nick Clegg has said “could not foresee any circumstances” in which the government would ask MPs to vote again, following their rejection of the PM’s proposal for military action last Thursday.

The Spectator on  a second vote say, David Cameron would therefore need the assurance not just of Miliband’s support for the motion, but of a three-line whip for his party. Which is why the vote won’t happen

If you’re cynical about politicians being truthful or think the situation in Syria will deteriorate and UK involvement is inevitable , you’ll take the 5/1, if you’d like a 10% return in less than four months, you’d take the no option.

I wonder if the vote in America will have an impact?



ComRes Phone Poll Out

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

Labour increases its lead, from three points to six points.



The fieldwork dates were between Friday the 30th August and Sunday the 1st September 2013, ComRes interviewed 1,000 British adults by telephone, so all post the Government defeat on Syria.

Other salient points from the poll

  • This is another poll showing Labour’s share of the vote in the 36%-40% range.
  • For the first time since December 2012 the Lib Dems are ahead of UKIP in a ComRes phone poll.
  • As with the YouGov for the Sunday Times, the Tory share of the vote has fallen, but within the margin of the error, but here, Labour haven’t been the recipient of the declining Tory share of the vote, and nor have UKIP.


The supplementaries on Syria.




Don’t know


Any military strikes against Syria should be first sanctioned by the United Nations





The experience of the Iraq war means that Britain should keep out of any military conflicts in the Middle East for the foreseeable future





David Cameron showed that he is out of touch with Britain in his handling of the Syria crisis





The United States, without Britain, should launch military air strikes on Syria to deter it from using chemical weapons in future








Corporeal asks: Was this the best possible political result for David Cameron?

Saturday, August 31st, 2013


Government defeats in House of Commons vote are usually a blow to the sitting Prime Minister, leaving a scar of weakness, and requiring a scramble to reformulate policy to account for the set-back and fill the gap left by the defeated motion. A coalition government adds another level of questions about what this means in terms of unity.

In this case however, I wonder if David Cameron will benefit from losing this vote far more than if he’d managed to push it through. For a start military involvement is currently unpopular, really unpopular,the shadow of Afghanistan and Iraq (whether justified comparisons or not) hang heavily over them in the public consciousness.

So Cameron has been dragged out of what is currently an unpopular move, but is also immune to criticism from those supporting military intervention. Of course he is still open to criticism from those opposing military intervention, but I’d suggest that criticism for wanting to do something but not actually doing it is the form of criticism that sticks the least. People always focus more on what was done than what was talked about but never happened.

He still controls the timetable on the issue; the government’s defeat puts the issue into a siding for the time being with their being no impetus for Cameron to make a move other than declare that he has to respect the will of the house. But at the same time he is always able to put another vote before the house and seek a second vote if he thinks things have shifted to allow him to win it.

Had he won the vote, or even if he’d gained near unanimous support in Parliament then the resulting action would still have been owned by Cameron (and to an extent Clegg) much more than Miliband and Labour however much in agreement they were. Owning such an unpopular policy is a case of major political bravery (with the dual implications that term brings).

If public opinion (and a majority of MPs) continues to oppose military intervention then Cameron can continue to respect the will of the house and limit the damage he faces from the interventionist stance. If these shift in response to UN reports, news media pictures, or any other factors then he has the ability to go back for a second vote while pointing out it was his position all along.

Defeat has forced David Cameron into limbo on Syria, but the flexibility that brings with it means it’s not a bad political position for him to be in.

(N.B. This is all obviously a separate calculation to what is best for the Syrian situation and the Syrian people).



After the Syria Vote: What happens next in the UK

Friday, August 30th, 2013

Looking at those front pages, it doesn’t make for pleasant reading for David Cameron today.

As Janan Ganesh writes

Defeat in Thursday night’s parliamentary vote on the principle of military action in Syria is not an existential wound for David Cameron, whatever his more excitable enemies say. But, after several months of good form, the prime minister looks weaker than at any time since taking office more than three years ago. Failing to win over Liberal Democrat MPs in his coalition government is one thing. Being defied by his own Tories is quite another. Prime ministers are simply not supposed to lose House of Commons votes on major matters of foreign policy.

The main losers (from the Conservative party) from last night, apart from Dave, are

1)       Sir George Young – Last night was not a good night for the Whips office as they failed to spot the size of the rebellion, and as Chief Whip he will have to take the blame for the worst bit of whipping since Hilary Armstrong lost Tony Blair a crucial vote despite having a notional majority on hand within the Palace of Westminster,  a new Chief Whip seems likely in the reshuffle

2)      Justine Greening – She missed the vote, and was nearly reshuffled out of the cabinet last time, her actions won’t endear her further to David Cameron, she’s 7/1  as next out, in a reshuffle the dead heat rules apply

3)      Michael Gove leadership ambitions, such as they were, took a hit when he yelled “You’re a disgrace” to Tory MPs who voted against the Government. Michael, remember those are the people who are going to vote in the Leadership election you’re planning to stand in. His wife’s tweets didn’t help the situation either.

4)      William Hague, has seen his odds tumble as next out of the cabinet from 20/1 yesterday to 6/1 now, which makes him the new favourite, a sign of his poor performance in convincing the parliamentary party to back his and the PM’s approach to Syria. He’s now unlikely to be the next Tory Leader if Dave fell under a bus as I and others have speculated in the past.

A few months ago, it was reported that Conservative rebels had the 46 signatures to trigger a vote of no confidence in David Cameron, but were biding their time.

For the anti-Cameroon wing of the Tory party, this maybe the optimal time to strike against a weakened Cameron. His authority is diminished, and like virginity, once authority is gone, it is very hard to get it back.

The last two Conservative leaders to be deposed, Margaret Thatcher and IDS were both deposed weeks after the Tory Party Conference.

Clegg is aware how dangerous conference can be for a Lib Dem leader as Sir Menzies Campbell (and his wife will confirm)

Given that the Lib Dem Party President, Tim Farron abstained on the vote last night, is he on manoeuvres? The price has tightened on Tim Farron leading LDs at 2015 General Election from 6/1 to 5/1

Nigel Farage has also had a good non-war. He can point out whilst the other three parties have at various stages not ruled military action, he could gain support from those conservatives who were opposed to military action in Syria, UKIP’s decline in the polls since May could be reversed now.

The SNP/Yes to Scottish Independence side could have taken a minor blow as well last night, as they’ve said in the past, one of the most compelling reasons for Scottish independence is that we will never again have a UK Government take us into an illegal war that we want nothing whatever to do with.

Last night’s vote proved it is possible to be part of the Union and still not be involved in “illegal wars that we want nothing whatever to do with.”

For Ed Miliband there are a lot of positives, he has turned the weak meme around 180 degrees and it is David Cameron that now looks weak, and Ed has also helped deal with Labour’s legacy on Iraq.

There are risks for Ed Miliband as well, as Antifrank posted on the previous thread

Last night’s vote was a crushing blow to David Cameron’s authority. He’s seriously weakened as a result.

But Ed Miliband needs to pray that the Syrian government doesn’t commit any more atrocities. Because David Cameron is going to lay them all at his door from now on.

Politicians are at their most vulnerable when they aren’t in control of events, and Ed Miliband is relying on President Assad and the Syrian Government not to commit any more atrocities. That is not the ideal situation for Ed or Labour.

But there’s one other thing that needs to be considered, we could still partake in military action against Syria….