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Highlighting news stories important to the Civic Republican
particularly those that are overlooked or little covered in the main media.
When Hilary Benn the Shadow (official opposition party) Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. sat down after his barnstorming speech to the British House of Commons on Wednesday, 2nd December 2015, the Government Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Philip Hammond) replied “I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on an outstanding exposition of the case for the motion. It will go down as one of the truly great speeches made in the House of Commons.”
Well, if that is what we call a great speech, the state of our democracy is truly lamentable. Benn displayed no understanding of the nature of the situation in Syria/Iraq to which he referred. The simplifications he used to describe that situation pandered to the worst kind of knee jerk reaction possible.
His “analysis” proceeded from this statement:
“The question that confronts us in a very complex conflict is, at its heart, very simple. What should we do with others to confront this threat to our citizens, our nation, other nations and the people who suffer under the cruel yoke of Daesh?”
In amassing information to help him answer his own question he was quite happy to play fast and loose with the truth as when he stated
“Daesh has killed 30 British tourists in Tunisia” when it is generally acknowledged that it was the North African Al Qaeda that committed this atrocity.
And the connection between Daesh and terrorists acts in Europe is not proven to be strong. Daesh may have provided money and some training and a few Kalashnikovs but the precipitators were almost without exception home grown. They were helped by Daesh at most. Any putative connection is talked up by politicians and press to deflect attention from failures at home and to give an easy target for revenge.
To counter the argument that there will be civilian casualties he cites good intentions as a defence
“I share the concerns that have been expressed this evening about potential civilian casualties. However, unlike Daesh, none of us today acts with the intent to harm civilians”.
I wonder if the resulting innocent dead and injured will take comfort from our well meaning bombs.
His analysis of the foe is crude, resorting to the overused label ‘fascists’ as if that might clarify anything.
”We are faced by fascists—not just their calculated brutality, but their belief that they are superior to every single one of us”.
He makes no attempt to address the current complexity of the situation completely ignoring the Russian bombing campaign carried out in conjunction with the Syrian President, Assad. His message is simplistic in the extreme. They are fascists. Let’s bomb the hell out of them.
Benn is not alone in creating ISIS as a kind of metaphysical monster that happens to have come to dwell amongst us. By that I mean that ISIS is seen as representing some terrible incomprehensible force that has emerged to confront us like a biblical plague. It is apocryphal coming from some deep well in human nature that we cannot address with rationality but must respond with all the brutality that it itself embodies.
Why are we so incapable of standing back and trying to understand the thing we feel so threatened by? The answer to this question, Mr Benn, really is as simple as you obviously like things to be. The answer is that we have created and are creating the monster of ISIS ourselves. There is nothing like guilt, that you don’t want to acknowledge, to distort your vision and cause you to lash out uncontrollably.
As Benn’s colleague and party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has said, ISIS is being funded from somewhere. It sells some oil, probably mostly to Turkey and Israel, but this would not be enough to sustain its forces and activities. Some state in the region is giving it money on a massive scale. The obvious candidate is our close friend and ally, our vital trading partner whereby we exchange hi-tech arms for oil, not to mention, the intimate friend of our very own monarch who publicly mourns the deaths of its head chopping, hand chopping kings. There are not many “usual suspects” for the role of funding ISIS and top of that list has to be Saudi Arabia.
But here I want to discuss not British guilt for its part in creating ISIS but an aspect of the problem it represents that receives little or no consideration in our politics or our media – geopolitics. Geopolitics is the nice new word for what used to be called “international affairs” and really does express it better so let’s stick with it. Here I am interested not in the usual geopolitics of the big global players but in the geopolitics of the Middle East area specifically. Not a subject that the wise heads of the Shadow Foreign Secretary, the Foreign Secretary or even the Foreign Office would bother themselves with. Intervention, arm sales to malevolent states, covert operations involving Israel, uncoordinated bombing campaigns – all those are fine. But reflecting on the actual regional geopolitics – that is not really worth the trouble.
The downing of the Russian fighter on Tuesday, 24th November, for “violating” Turkish air space for a nanosecond (the time of 17 seconds claimed by Turkey has been refuted as this would have meant the plane flying well below the minimum speed to remain airborne) has brought the role of Turkey in the regional geopolitics into full focus. It has opened up a long standing historical enmity between Turkey and Russia and reminded us of Turkey’s ambitions in the region.
To understand what is happening we need to be fully aware of the terms in which the regional players themselves sees things. First there is the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the area and secondly there is the struggle for the caliphate. The caliphate is not something lost in the mists of the Middle Ages for it continued right up to the end of World War I. The Ottoman Turks had claimed the caliphate (which they then called the sultanate) after they defeated what remained of the Eastern Roman Empire by capturing Constantinople, after a long and bloody siege in 1453. This military feat placed the Turks in an unrivalled position to dominate and expand their empire throughout the whole of the Middle East and the Maghreb (the Arab lands of North Africa) right up to the eastern boundary of Morocco. The distinctive Ottoman octagonal plan minarets can be seen in this whole area, contrasting with the square plans of the Arab minarets.
This control meant the Ottomans could justifiably claim the caliphate. But what exactly is the caliphate? And why does it matter to the situation today? Now ISIS claims the caliphate. So what is all that about?
The idea of the caliphate is unique to the religion of Islam. But it is only appropriate to the Sunni arm of Islam and this is important to bear in mind. It derives from the fact that Mohammed, the founder of Islam, was a political and military leader as much as a religious leader. Through the political and military abilities of Mohammed, as well as, on occasion, his pure luck, what can be called, an Islamic state became established in the south of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century. On his death it was only natural that those who inherited his role as leader of the new faith should continue as both political and religious leaders. There was no separation between church and state, as is normal in Christian countries, and this was what lead to the idea of the caliph. The caliph became the head of state or empire as well as the leader of the religion.
With the death of Mohammed the problem over who should be his successor arose. On what basis would the claim for leadership be based? This lead to the split into Sunnis and Shiites, the Shiites wanting the choice of leader to be based on family or blood relation to Mohammed whilst the Sunnis saw it as a matter of political strength. The Sunnis as we know became dominant and they evolved the idea of the caliph as leader, ruling over land known as the “caliphate”. The Shiites remained a minority concentrated, as far as the Middle East is concerned, in present day Iran and parts of Iraq. The Shiites are more flexible about combining the functions of both religious and political leaders and this is why Iran has been able to make the transformation to a democracy. (You will recall that the last Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, lost power simply and purely because of a popular vote. )
ISIS have brought to the fore the notion of caliphate by claiming to be its legitimate inheritor. This clearly has caused Turkey pause for thought for they were the last to hold a respected caliphate/sultanate before the Ottoman Empire was dismantled by the victors of World War I. However, the current Turkish government, under the strongly Sunni President Erdogan, does not see ISIS as a serious competitor for the title (it is far too small for that) but rather sees ISIS as an ally in re-establishing Turkish strength throughout the region.
The geopolitical machinations are complex, but when Turkey sees its natural, non-Sunni enemy in Assad, team up with its ancient enemy in Russia, the advantage of siding with ISIS is all too evident. Hence, its purchase of ISIS oil. Hence its downing of the Russia fighter. ISIS is very strongly Sunni and the sworn enemy of Shiites and so for Turkey to have a Sunni ally on its border as a buffer between Assad in Syria and the Shiite dominated Iraq is clearly to its advantage.
To that we must add one of the most important strategic facts of the situation. We are in a military pact with Turkey. If any one member of NATO is at war, all members are at war. It is NATO that makes the ISIS situation a threat to the peace of the whole world and so the phrase “World War III” has crept into the political vocabulary almost unremarked. But let’s not go there for the moment.
Now we have to throw another joker into the pack, and a very big joker at that - Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are Sunnis but of a very extreme sort known as Wahhabism. We need not go into the details of Wahhabism except to note that they are going to take a dim view of Turkey as defender of Sunni-ism when Turkey is a democracy. Their claim as Sunni leader in the area thus is more and more being flaunted. They too naturally see ISIS’s role in opposing the Shiites and resurrecting the caliphate as beneficial and so they too support it. Of course the government would never admit this and in any case it is likely that Saudi support for ISIS comes from rich Saudi families. These are so close to the government that it hardly makes a difference.
The relevance of the notion of the caliphate to all this is not that this word is likely to ever be used publicly outside of ISIS but that the Sunnis naturally see that one Sunni nation should dominate the Islamic Middle East with Shiites subjugated. With Tunisia, Libya and Egypt in chaos following their various “Arab spring’s” the possibility for a single Sunni leader emerging from the chaos looks a distinct possibility. The Saudis are intent that they should assume that leadership.
Their game plan is to let ISIS create havoc and distract Assad in Syria so that he will have no power beyond his own borders. If he is destroyed and the majority Sunnis take over then so much the better – but that is looking less and less likely especially with Russia’s intervention. If ISIS do better and capture even more of Shiite dominated Iraq then that must be a clear Saudi objective. They will never openly admit support for ISIS but that makes no difference to the real alignments
In any case, the western powers know full well that the Saudis are on ISIS's side and are more than ready to help the Saudis hide the fact. If the western powers were serious about destroying ISIS they would team up with Russia. But they are not serious and they don’t. The western powers know full well many armaments they supply to the Saudis find their way into the hands of ISIS. (The same is true of arms given to the Syrian rebels.)
Russia understands that the only way to defeat ISIS is to side with Assad for he has a well discipline motivated army in place on the ground. It is true he has waged a horrible war against the Sunni rebels in his own country but we should ask: what is it that motivates the rebels? Here we come back again to the interreligious enmities. Assad is a Shiite (of the Alawi sect) and has the support of the Shiite Iranians. The west supported the Sunni rebels because the west sees Sunnis as better friends. Its main strong allies in the region are Sunni not Shiite. Democratic Shiite Iran is cast as its bitterest foe.
Arguably Syria would have been an Arab spring too far. The west encouraged the rebels as they had done elsewhere turning a once beautiful, welcoming, religiously tolerant country into a cauldron of death and suffering. Assad may have been brutal sometimes but I imagine most of us honestly start to ask ourselves the question of whether his kind of leader is the only kind capable of holding these Arab countries together. The fact that Assad and Russia have been allies for a long time only encouraged western interference.
The Tory motion he supported takes no account of how this bombing might play into the delicate regional geopolitics I have described. The overpaid goons in MI6 clearly were unable to advise him or the government. So Britain wades in. The only consequences of the bombing can be to contribute to ISIS recruiting, promote more copy cat acts of terrorism in Europe, kill innocent civilians, swell the numbers of refugees, mess with the sound coordinated strategy of Russia and heighten the struggle between Turkey and the Saudis to assume the new “caliphate” – a dominant leader of the Sunni nations against the Shiites of Iran and Iraq.
Israel whose very survival depends on finance and arms from America, Britain and France, is supporting ISIS believing in this it will combat its enemy in Assad’s Syria. This strategy could backfire dramatically if it finds itself confronted by a new, strong, Sunni caliphate, stretching from Turkey’s border to the Maghreb and lead by the Saudis. All these nations as we know have strong extremist Muslim movements that would welcome this arrangement. Once this new force has the confidence to live without oil sales to the west, it could drop its hands-off attitude to Israel in a second.
Meanwhile Turkey is out of control. The days of it being a slightly wayward, but non-threatening ally, eager to participate in the fruits of EU membership seem a long time ago. We could yet find ourselves in a deadly military pact with the new caliphate pretender confronting not only the whole Middle East but Russia as well. The very strong commitment we give by signing the military pact of NATO will drag us in on Turkey’s side whether we like it or not.
We really have got to be out of our minds.