Once again, terrorists have attacked Paris, this time leaving well over 100 people dead. Everyone will agree that this is a tragedy and that something should be done to prevent anything like it happening again.
Of course, what that something is will vary greatly, depending on your point of view.
For some, it will mean increased domestic security; more spying on innocent people, less freedom of movement, less freedom of speech, less compassion towards refugees and even more intensive military engagement abroad. It will mean increasingly oppressive and restrictive actions by western governments against their own citizens and particularly against foreigners. Such ideas will masquerade under the banner of “common sense” and a “duty to protect”.
We need a rational response, and the basis of any rational analysis has to be the principle of cause and effect.
It’s very easy to dismiss any argument which reflects culpability on our own governments as “making excuses for terrorists” or “blaming the west for everything”. Let’s be clear, the immediate responsibility for these attacks lies only with the terrorists – that should go without saying. The challenge, however, is to understand if and how our own foreign policy contributes to creating an environment in which terrorism can flourish. This is essential if we are to be able to judge whether a particular response is likely to be effective, or actually make the problem worse. It’s not a difficult thing to do.
Ever since the invasion of Iraq, the Middle East has been in meltdown. With a few exceptions, the consensus of public opinion now appears to accept that the invasion of Iraq was ill-conceived, and that both the motivation behind and the execution of the invasion were shockingly inept. Let’s not rehash that debate, except to point out that the lessons learned were the wrong ones. Foreign policy shifted from outright invasions involving the deployment of ground forces to remove foreign governments deemed a “threat to our interests”, to providing support for militant groups inside the target nations whose objectives broadly align with western objectives.
Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, dubbed the “Arab Spring“, to varying degrees resulted in relatively stable coups. Revolutions can be great, there are many governments around the world who thoroughly deserve to be overthrown. The problem is that revolutions and popular uprisings also present easy opportunities which western intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, are past masters at taking advantage of. They’ve done it for years throughout Latin America, the Middle East and Africa, and even more recently since the ending of the cold war in Eastern Europe with some degree of success – at least as success is defined by the west.
In Libya, things went much less smoothly. Gaddafi had long been a thorn in the side of both western and Arab governments; his support for revolutionary movements around the world had bought him praise in some circles, and branded him a sponsor of international terrorism in others. His plans for a single African currency threatened the position of the US dollar as the global reserve currency, and his support for Pan African unity signalled trouble for western corporations’ ease of access to African resources. His record of political oppression at home was questionable, yet Libyans still enjoyed some of the highest living standards of any nation in Africa, and an average life expectancy of 75 years. In short, Libya had progressed significantly since independence, and potentially stood to benefit if the “old guard” who had led that process, but who still clung jealously to power, could be moved aside to allow greater political and economic freedom.
In the normal course of events, that’s what might have happened, but in the context of the Middle East in 2010 where many Libyans from the eastern part of the country had actively participated in the Iraqi insurgency, such an outcome was unlikely. Instead, NATO provided close air support to a mixture of tribal militias, each with a different vision of how the country needed to change, a significant portion of whom were al Qaeda style extremists. Soon after Gaddafi had been defeated and lynched, the black flag of al Qaeda was on open display above the courthouse of Benghazi.
Since then, the country has been divided with no effective government, and roaming bands of competing militia extort, murder and torture the civilian population at will. Libya has become a failed state, and life for ordinary Libyans is significantly worse than it was before.
Other arms were reportedly being funnelled to Syria to support the ongoing uprisings there. What had perhaps begun in Syria as a genuine response to another post-colonial-yet-clinging-to-power-longer-than-was-healthy regime was being transformed and hijacked by two sets of forces. The first was the usual western interference, the British, Americans and French supporting the Free Syrian Army, who we were told were “moderates” committed to a secular and democratic Syrian state. The second were salafist head-choppers sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and a few other Gulf states.
To add context, Syria is at the crossroads of two proxy wars. One between western and Russian interests competing for geo-political control of the Middle East and Mediterranean, and in particular, seeking to remove Russia’s naval base at Tartus. The second, part of a wider conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Islam, championed by Saudi Arabia and Iran respectively.
This Sunni/Shi’a conflict has fomented for a long time, dating back at least to Saddam’s invasion of Iran in the 1980s, and has intensified again as a result of the sectarian conflict which developed in post-invasion Iraq. In 2010, the majority Shi’a population elected a highly sectarian Iraqi government led by Nouri al-Maliki, whose repression of the Sunni minority in Iraq caused much friction and division, and signalled growing Iranian influence in the country. This, along with Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria’s Bashar al Assad formed a substantial power base opposed to Saudi interests.
The alienation of Iraqi Sunnis left them isolated and vulnerable, making an alignment with al Qaeda in Iraq, whose affiliates in Syria were making significant progress, much more attractive to tribal leaders who had previously opposed them. The forces on both sides of the border then coalesced into what we now know as ISIS, or ISIL depending on your translation. In a matter of weeks, ISIS had taken over great swathes of Iraq, eventually capturing Iraq’s second city of Mosul, as well as having control of huge parts of Syria.
In Syria, the FSA, such as it had existed, either collapsed and faded away or was absorbed into other more radical forces, including ISIS, along with their western supplied arms and money. In reality, the FSA were never that “moderate”, and their membership moved fluidly between them and other more radical elements as boundaries and allegiances shifted during the war.
The US response to ISIS was to engage in sporadic bombing campaigns, and never amounted to much more than a mild annoyance to ISIS. The more recent involvement of Russia appears to be having a much stronger effect, with ISIS now losing ground rapidly in Syria and gradually in Iraq too, thanks to the Iraqi Army and a Shi’a militia who, it has to be noted, are every bit as fanatical and cruel as ISIS.
Over a quarter of a million people have so far died in Syria and this once developed and largely secular nation has been reduced to rubble. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are sheltering in neighbouring states, and tens of thousands of them are also fleeing to Europe as hope of a resolution to the conflict has faded. It’s a humanitarian disaster on a massive scale.
Certainly, religion plays a significant part in this conflict. Most Arab nations didn’t form by natural processes, where people of similar customs and religions come together to form nations. The modern map of the Middle East was drawn by agreements between European powers, much like the map of Africa, paying no attention to the cultural and religious identities of those who fell within their borders. If anything, the potential to divide the populations against each other was seen as an advantage, because a population divided is weaker, easier to manipulate and dominate from outside.
Yet, it’s not the whole story. Any popular movement will find ways of expressing itself in the vernacular that local people understand, in much the same way that Christianity wasn’t the cause of slavery but Biblical texts and ideas were used to justify what economic interests had designed. In Iraq, resistance to a foreign invasion came first and religious fundamentalism followed. Lacking any deep political ideology, religious-based rhetoric filled the void and gave meaning and direction to the resistance.
However, the fact remains that the vast majority of the victims of ISIS are other Muslims who ISIS have deemed insufficiently observant, and the vast majority of Muslims around the world are at least equally as horrified by ISIS as everyone else.
It is, surely, beyond argument that the rise of ISIS is directly attributable to the destruction of stable, if less than ideal, mostly secular nation states and the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent people by western armies and their Islamist proxies.
The situation today in Syria has many parallels in the past, most obviously since the increased involvement of Russia with the conflict in Afghanistan during the 1980s. There, Islamic extremism was deliberately encouraged as it could be used to motivate strong resistance to the Soviet invasion, which itself had been deliberately provoked. The CIA provided logistical support to native Afghan groups, while Saudi Arabia organised the foreign fighters shipped in to assist, most notable among which was of course Osama bin Laden. The seeds of this current conflict were sowed 35 years ago in Kabul, and have borne fruit this weekend in Paris.
Even earlier, the salafi Islamic sect itself, pejoratively called Wahhabism, arose in Saudi Arabia as the House of Saud, with British support, murdered their way to power in the 1920s.
What happened in Paris is the exception, though, rather than the rule. By far the greatest number of casualties occur in the Middle East itself, and a few in Africa, and whilst some do attract attention like the kidnapping of the schoolgirls in Nigeria, for the most part the reaction is muted. It’s not entirely unreasonable for westerners to be more affected by events happening on their doorstep, to people like them in places like the places they go. However, it is shallow. The unrelenting media hype which accompanies these events is in part opportunist pandering to populist themes in order to maximize ratings, and part blatant propaganda to reinforce xenophobia and underline the unspoken implication that European lives matter more.
Alongside this narrative is an acceptance of the inevitability of continued war, of the intractable nature of a problem which stands little chance of resolution. This is just untrue, with a real effort aimed at the causes, organisations like ISIS could be dismantled in months or a year or two at most.
All that’s required is a real will to do so. That would mean ending western interference in other countries out of purely strategic and financial interests. It would mean confronting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to cut off the supply of money, arms and ideological indoctrination which that region has been exporting for decades.
That’s not a course of action without costs, as the west relies on Saudi oil, and of course Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest importer of arms with a total trade worth more than $60 billion. The world’s top exporters of arms are the very same countries which form the UN Security Council, led by the USA.
That trade in oil and arms is more important than people’s lives is itself an indictment of our economic and political system, and an expression of the imperialist priorities which drive global conflict and give rise to terrorism. Ultimately, it’s all about the money and it always has been.
The real irony of course is that all of this happens in the name of democracy, when if democracy really worked this would all change tomorrow. The vast majority of the profits from the arms trade, war and neo-liberal globalisation pass ordinary people by and go straight into the pockets of billionaire shareholders and corporate directors, whilst the bills for war are passed directly to the people, the taxpayer, to you and I.
The only way to change this is to enforce our collective will on the streets and through the ballot box, to let it be known that we do not consent to this war or the next, that we stand together as people tired of war, death and suffering who demand a world where people’s lives come before corporate profit.
The world is inter-connected, our security can only be guaranteed by ensuring the security of others. No amount of military power or technology can ever truly protect us, and if we use it to inflict harm and suffering on the weak and the vulnerable sooner or later some of that violence will inevitably rebound back on us.
Ultimately, the “liberation” of oppressed people across the Middle East from the despotic regimes of Gulf state monarchs and from the crazed pseudo-religious criminality of groups like ISIS will be contingent on the liberation of the western world from the grip of the corporate greed, plutocracy and corruption which created them.