Cavorting with extremism: UK cracks down at home, befriends extremists abroad

By Brian Whitaker, May 18, 2016

Today Queen Elizabeth will deliver her annual speech to the British parliament setting out the government’s programme for the next 12 months. High on the list of proposals is a renewed effort to combat “extremism”, and one idea is to establish a register of “extremists” – similar to the register of sex offenders – intended “to stop radicals infiltrating schools, colleges, charities and care homes, where they could brainwash vulnerable young people or disabled adults into violence”.

The problem with this, as with the rest of the government’s “counter-extremism” policy, is how to define “extremism”. In a recent article for The Independent, Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael explained:

“The [government’s] current definition of extremism as ‘the vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’ is drafted so widely that it will not only catch terrorist sympathisers but perhaps even those who oppose the government, believe the monarchy should be abolished or disagree with same-sex marriage.”

But the problem goes deeper than that. Last Sunday a spectacular event featuring TV celebrities and 900 horses was held at Windsor Castle to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. The royal family were in attendance and, seated at the Queen’s right-hand side was a man who by any reasonable interpretation of the government’s definition would be considered an extremist: the king of Bahrain.

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Britain lobbied UN to whitewash Bahrain police abuses

The Observer reports: neutering United Nations criticism of Bahrain for its human rights record, including the alleged use of torture by its security forces.

Documents shared with the Observer reveal that the UN’s criticism of the Gulf state was substantially watered down after lobbying by the UK and Saudi Arabia, a major purchaser of British-made weapons and military hardware.

The result was a victory for Bahrain and for Saudi Arabia, which sent its troops to quell dissent in the tiny kingdom during the Arab spring.

But the UK’s role has prompted concern among human rights groups. According to the international human rights organisation, Reprieve, two political prisoners in Bahrain are facing imminent execution and several more are on trial, largely due to confessions obtained through torture. [Continue reading…]

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Gulf states guarding their interests in Saudi-Iran rift

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The New York Times reports: For all the diplomatic dominoes that have fallen across the Middle East in recent days, with ambassadors from different countries flying home as a result of the explosive rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the map of allegiances has not significantly altered.

Certainly, several countries offered muscular shows of solidarity to Saudi Arabia after an Iranian mob attacked its embassy in Tehran over the weekend, prompting a crisis that has put the United States in a bind and has threatened to set back the prospects for a resolution to the conflict in Syria.

By Tuesday, Kuwait had recalled its ambassador to Iran, the United Arab Emirates had downgraded its diplomatic relationship, and Bahrain and Sudan had joined Saudi Arabia in severing its relationship with Tehran entirely.

Yet many other Sunni Muslim countries signaled that they intended to take a more measured approach to the argument — sympathizing with Saudi Arabia, a rich and powerful ally, but also determined to avoid getting sucked into a harmful conflict with Iran, a country governed by Shiite clerics, with potentially grave costs.

“The smaller Gulf states are worried they will get caught in the middle,” said Michael Stephens, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “It worries them greatly that things could go badly.”

Some countries, like Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan, are already battling their own domestic insurgencies. Others are keen to guard their strategic interests or to keep the door open to trade with Iran while there is a prospect of American sanctions being lifted.

Qatar, which shares with Iran access to the world’s largest natural gas field in the Persian Gulf, has yet to declare its hand. Oman has also been quiet, sticking to its longstanding position of neutrality on Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In Turkey, where senior officials have warned about the impact of the crisis on a “powder keg” region, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered his country’s services to help resolve the conflict peacefully. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-led air war on ISIS in Syria has little allied support

The New York Times reports: As the United States prepares to intensify airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, the Arab allies who with great fanfare sent warplanes on the initial missions there a year ago have largely vanished from the campaign.

The Obama administration heralded the Arab air forces flying side by side with American fighter jets in the campaign’s early days as an important show of solidarity against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or Daesh. Top commanders like Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, who oversees operations in Syria and Iraq, still laud the Arab countries’ contributions to the fight. But as the United States enters a critical phase of the war in Syria, ordering Special Operations troops to support rebel forces and sending two dozen attack planes to Turkey, the air campaign has evolved into a largely American effort.

Administration officials had sought to avoid the appearance of another American-dominated war, even as most leaders in the Persian Gulf seem more preoccupied with supporting rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Now, some of those officials note with resignation, the Arab partners have quietly left the United States to run the bulk of the air war in Syria — not the first time Washington has found allies wanting.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shifted most of their aircraft to their fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Jordan, reacting to the grisly execution of one of its pilots by the Islamic State, and in a show of solidarity with the Saudis, has also diverted combat flights to Yemen. Jets from Bahrain last struck targets in Syria in February, coalition officials said. Qatar is flying patrols over Syria, but its role has been modest. [Continue reading…]

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Why are the Gulf states so reluctant to take in refugees?

By Rana Jawad, University of Bath

Europe’s reaction to the refugee crisis has hardly been a calm and considered one; with fences erected and border controls reinstated, the continent’s governments are struggling to agree on a response.

But at least Europe’s governments are acting. In the Middle East, things are rather different. In particular, the Arab Gulf States are catching serious flack for their response to the crisis – or rather, their failure to respond.

One big question is reverberating in the minds of the general public, expert observers and policy-makers; why have the Gulf states, who are among the richest countries in the world, not taken in any Syrian refugees? There’s no need to rewrite the commentary that’s already out there: many articles have provided useful statistics and background information on the international conventions and treaties the Persian Gulf countries are signed up to, and their failure to honour them.

What all this misses, though, is the general lack of social justice and a social welfare ethos in the Persian Gulf and Middle East in general. This is a complex story about the mindset of a region in disunity and disarray.

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Coalition attacks Yemen capital after UAE, Saudi soldiers killed

Reuters reports: Warplanes from the United Arab Emirates struck Houthi targets across Yemen, state news agency WAM said on Saturday, a day after at least 60 soldiers from a Saudi-led coalition, mostly Emiratis, were killed in an attack in central Yemen.

Medical sources at hospitals in the capital Sanaa, which has been under effective control of the Iranian-allied Houthi militia for almost a year, said about 24 civilians were killed in the city as a result of the attacks.

WAM said the UAE air force struck a mine-making plant in the Houthi-dominated Saada province in northern Yemen, as well as military camps and weapon stores in the central Ibb province, causing “heavy damage”.

Apart from 45 Emiratis and five Bahrainis, Saudi state-run Al Ekhbariya TV reported on Saturday that 10 Saudi soldiers were also killed in the attack in Marib province on Friday, quoting Brigadier-General Ahmed al-Asiri, the coalition spokesman.

Asiri told Al Arabiya TV that four Yemeni soldiers were also killed in the attack on the coalition base in Marib.

Friday’s death toll was the highest for the coalition since it began its assault on the Houthis in March, and is one of the worst losses of life in the history of the UAE military. [Continue reading…]

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Most of the drivers of regional destruction have little to do with Iranian-Saudi rivalry

Rami G Khouri writes: [Regional] destruction is painfully visible every day in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, and Yemen, at the very least. This spectacle of multiple fragmenting states is bad enough; it is made even worse by the latest troubling development — it is too early to call it a trend — which is the spectacle of repeated bomb attacks and killings of government officials and security forces in three of the most important regional powers that should be stabilizing forces in the Middle East: Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Add to this the ongoing war in Yemen, and the erratic battle against “Islamic State” (ISIS) forces in Syria, Iraq and other tiny pockets of ISIS presence around the region, the massive refugee flows and the stresses they cause, and the dangerous sectarian dimensions of some of the confrontations underway, and we end up with a very complex and violent regional picture that cannot possibly be explained primarily as a consequence of Iranian-Saudi rivalries.

A more complete explanation of the battered Arab region today must include accounting for several other mega-tends: the impact of the last twenty-fix years of non-stop American military attacks, threats and sanctions from Libya to Afghanistan; the radicalizing impact of sixty-seven years of non-stop Zionist colonization and militarism against Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians and other Arabs; the hollowing out of Arab economic and governance systems by three generations of military-led, amateurish and corruption-riddled mismanaged governance that deprived citizens of their civic and political rights and pushed them to assert instead the primacy of their sectarian and tribal identities; and, the catalytic force of the 2003 Anglo-American led war on Iraq that opened the door for all these forces and others yet — like lack of water, jobs, and electricity that make normal daily life increasingly difficult — to combine into the current situation of widespread national polarization and violence.

Most of these drivers of the current regional condition have little to do with Iranian-Saudi sensitivities, and much more to do with decades of frail statehood, sustained and often violent Arab authoritarianism, denied citizenship, distorted development, and continuous regional and global assaults. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. to resume military aid to Bahrain despite human rights criticism

IB Times reports: The United States said on Monday that it would lift its ban on providing security and military aid to Bahrain, which was imposed after the Gulf state cracked down on Shia-led protests in 2011. U.S. officials said the decision was taken because Bahrain had made meaningful reforms since then.

However, Washington did not specify the weapons or military equipment that would be sent to the country.

Dozens of people died when the government clamped down on protesters in 2011, who were demanding that the ruling Sunni family end its discrimination against the country’s majority Shia population. [Continue reading…]

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We are human rights defenders, but Bahrain says we’re terrorists

Sayed Alwadaei writes: The barbaric killing of Muadh al-Kasasbeh by Isis will haunt us for a long time to come as an example of the cruelty of today’s Jihadi terrorists. Kasasbeh was burned alive in a cage a month ago, his murder hidden from the world as Jordan demanded his safe return, the truth only coming to light last week when a video of his murder appeared online.

As Jordan mourns its hero, we in Bahrain reflect in fear and disgust: the Bahraini government names human rights defenders, journalists and political activists terrorists, and in doing so they liken us to Kasasbeh’s killers. The prospect of what it means for us is utterly terrifying.

At the beginning of the month the ministry of interior published a list of 72 persons whose citizenship was to be revoked. No trial, no appeal, no legal process – if your name is on that list, you are no longer a Bahraini. Recent amendments to the nationality law allow the state to revoke citizenship for those guilty of terrorism. About 50 of the named persons, myself included, are human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, doctors, religious scholars – peaceful activists. Most of us are now stateless. Among the reasons given for revoking our citizenship: “defaming the image of the regime, inciting against the regime and spreading false news to hinder the rules of the constitution” and “defaming brotherly countries”. [Continue reading…]

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Obama’s ill-conceived coalition against ISIS

Musa al-Gharbi writes: The U.S. was the only non-Arab actor to participate in the Syria raids. Collaborating with the U.S. were five other Arab states: Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan.

While many pundits have and will continue to describe them as “moderate Arab allies” — what “moderate” usually means is something akin to “compliant with the U.S. agenda in the region.” What may be more significant to note about these powers is that they are all monarchies—in fact, the actors who took part in the strike are most of the region’s surviving dynasties (excluding only Oman, Kuwait, and Morocco).

The Gulf monarchs are far from beloved in Iraq, even among the Sunni population. Readers may remember that the “Sunni” Hussein regime wanted to go to war with the KSA, provoking the U.S.-led Operation Desert Shield. There is a long enmity between the peoples of Iraq and the Gulf monarchs — and an even deeper enmity between these powers and the Syrians. So the idea that the populations of IS-occupied Iraq and Syria will find these forces and their actions legitimate simply in virtue of the fact that they are “Sunni” is a gross oversimplification that reinforces problematic sectarian narratives even as it obscures important geopolitical truths. Among them:

If anything, the alliance that carried out the strike actually reinforces the narrative of the IS: it will be framed as the United States and its oppressive monarchic proxies collaborating to stifle the Arab Uprisings in order to preserve the doomed status quo.

In a similar manner, it is somewhat irrelevant that salafi and “moderate” Sunni Muslim religious authorities have condemned al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” as invalid and ill-conceived — in part because it presupposes that most of the foreign fighters who are joining ISIS for ideological reasons are devout, well-informed about fiqh and closely following the rulings of jurists, etc. In fact, the opposite seems to be true, and many of those coming from abroad to join the IS are motivated primarily by factors other than religion. Even much of their indigenous support is from people who join for money, or else due to their grievances against the governments in Iraq and/or Syria — not because they buy into the vision of al-Baghdadi and his ilk. Accordingly, the value of “Sunni buy-in,” framed religiously, is probably both misstated and overstated.

And not only will the involvement of the Gulf kingdoms strikes be extremely controversial on the ground in Iraq and Syria, but also within the emirates who took part in these raids. Syria and the so-called “Islamic State” remain highly polarizing issues across the region — many will be apprehensive of their governments getting involved, others actually support the aspirations of these mujahedeen and view their own regimes as corrupt. [Continue reading…]

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Map of U.S. airstrikes across Syria

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U.S. and allies launch airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria

The New York Times reports: The United States and allies launched airstrikes against Sunni militants in Syria early Tuesday, unleashing a torrent of cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs from the air and sea on the militants’ de facto capital of Raqqa and along the porous Iraq border.

American fighter jets and armed Predator and Reaper drones, flying alongside warplanes from several Arab allies, struck a broad array of targets in territory controlled by the militants, known as the Islamic State. American defense officials said the targets included weapons supplies, depots, barracks and buildings the militants use for command and control. Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from United States Navy ships in the region.

“I can confirm that U.S. military and partner nation forces are undertaking military action against ISIL terrorists in Syria using a mix of fighter, bomber and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, using an alternate name for the Islamic State. [Continue reading…]

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Assad’s war on doctors

Annie Sparrow, deputy director of the human rights program at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, writes: Over the last few weeks, the growing plight of Syria’s civilian population has drawn belated international attention to the country’s failing health system. In late October, in the eastern part of the country, the World Health Organization confirmed an outbreak of polio — a highly infectious, fast-spreading disease that poses a potential threat not just to Syria but to the entire region. At the same time, reports of malnutrition and disease in the besieged areas on the outskirts of Damascus and other embattled cities, where there are severe shortages of food and milk, have raised new fears of a spreading public health disaster. But these developments are hardly new, nor are they, as the international press has suggested, simply the unfortunate byproducts of an increasingly brutal war. They are connected to something far more sinister: a direct assault on the medical system by the Syrian government as a strategy of war.

The Assad regime has come to view doctors as dangerous, their ability to heal rebel fighters and civilians in rebel-held areas a weapon against the government. Over the past two and a half years, doctors, nurses, dentists, and pharmacists who provide treatment to civilians in contested areas have been arrested and detained; paramedics have been tortured and used as human shields, ambulances have been targeted by snipers and missiles; medical facilities have been destroyed; the pharmaceutical industry devastated. Directly and indirectly, the attacks have had a profound effect on tens of thousands of health professionals and millions of Syrian patients, let alone the more than 2 million refugees who have fled to neighboring countries.

Here is how a surgeon from Aleppo describes the attitude of the Syrian government. Last April, while treating a man seriously wounded by a government sniper, he was accosted and wrenched away by a military intelligence officer: “We are shooting at them in order to kill them. This is obvious,” the intelligence officer told him. “Since you are stopping him from dying, you are a terrorist. For this you will be punished.” The surgeon’s clinic was destroyed, his wife’s clinic was shut down, and they were forced to flee Aleppo. As a surgeon, he is not authorized to practice in Turkey, where they have taken refuge, despite the urgent need of his skills there.

In the northwest city of Idlib, the Red Crescent hospital was simply taken over by the Syrian army after a systematic crackdown on its medical staff. Before the war, the hospital had some twenty doctors and forty nurses. By March 2012, when the army arrived, there were only three doctors left — two anesthetists and a surgeon — and two nurses. The hospital’s director, Dr. Abdulrazaq Jbero, had been killed a few weeks earlier by a government sniper on his way back from Damascus in a Red Crescent vehicle. [Continue reading…]

Among observers who are reflexively skeptical of any reporting critical of the Assad regime, here is one attempt to dismiss Sparrow’s report:

Given how accurate coverage of Syria over here has been, I’m skeptical. The hospitals in Iraq were a complete mess after the invasion, between destruction and looting and lack of power. And the professional classes were fleeing because they had enough money and skills to do so. Oh, and no media coverage of that here, from what I could tell at the time. So a comparison v. how messed up Iraq’s hospitals were v. Syria’s now would provide a useful reality check.

There is actually a much more obvious and immediate parallel that can be drawn: attacks on doctors in Bahrain.

Having witnessed the Obama administration ineffectual appeals for Bahrain to exercise restraint even as the U.S. has continued supplying it with weapons, Assad could reasonably have concluded that he could employ the same tactics with impunity.

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Ignoring Bahrain’s iron fist

Sarah Margon and Mary Laurie write: For two years, as the United States has condemned massive abuses of protesters throughout the Middle East, it has largely turned a blind eye to equally horrific treatment in Bahrain, a small but significant ally. As the situation in Manama shows no sign of abating, the United States needs to step up its game– before it’s too late.

Last week, a Bahraini court sentenced 50 Shiites, including the human rights activist Naji Fateel, to harsh prison terms of up to 15 years after a mass trial allegedly linking the activists to the “February 14” movement, which it claims is working to overthrow the government. February 14 is the date in 2011 when the recent protest movement began. The leaders of those largely peaceful protests remain in prison and have been joined over the past two years by other activists convicted solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly.

A week before the sentencing, U.S. President Barack Obama made an unexpected reference to Bahrain, alongside Iraq and Syria, as a country fraught with sectarian tensions that challenge democracy and regional stability in his September 24 address to the U.N. General Assembly. This reference prompted the Bahraini foreign affairs minister to issue a statement extolling the country’s culture as tolerant. Bahrain’s U.S. ambassador also responded, contending the speech did not properly portray Bahrain’s progressive and open-minded society.

The presidential mention ruffled feathers in Manama — a sure sign of U.S. diplomatic leverage there — but it was not enough to stop last week’s sentencing. [Continue reading…]

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Who wants to help improve the image of an oppressive government?

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The deceit at the core of public relations is contained in the name.

Public Relations, or PR — it has a Stalinist blandness, as though it might perform the most benign, necessary, and mundane of functions. One might imagine that someone in public relations dealt with issues like making sure the trains run on time.

But if its name was more befitting of the function, then PR should be called mind twisting. It’s all about obscuring reality and shaping perceptions so that those perceptions meet the interests of the PR client, irrespective of the interests of the public.

The autocratic and brutal rulers of Bahrain have called out for the services of the best mind twisters in the business and bids have been made by companies that clearly have few concerns about tarnishing their own images. Why would they? After all, most PR outfits have less public visibility than intelligence agencies.

Bahrain Watch is calling attention to six major American and British PR firms that are hoping to win a new contract with the Bahrain government, those being, Bell Pottinger, Hill & Knowlton, Weber Shandwick, Portland Communications, Citigate Dewe Rogerson, and Consulum.

These aren’t household names and neither are the people who run them — but they should be, because these are people who not only advise Middle Eastern autocrats but just as often they counsel the leaders of Western governments.

Lord Bell, chairman of Bell Pottinger, was an adviser to Margaret Thatcher during three general election campaigns. Jack Martin, chairman and CEO of Hill Knowlton, was a senior advisor to the Democratic National Committee and the U.S. Senate Democratic Committee. Jack Leslie, chairman of Weber Shandwick, was a senior aide to U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Tim Allan, founder of Portland Communications, was a key media adviser to Tony Blair and served as deputy press secretary in Number 10, Downing Street.

With advisers like these, it’s small wonder we have such little confidence in our own democratic leaders. If those who have perfected the art of lubricating the wheels of government in Washington and London, can just as easily offer their services to a government that “has received widespread condemnation from international human rights bodies for human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, torture, mass political sackings and severe restrictions on freedoms of expression and association,” what does this say about the condition of contemporary Western governance?

Everyone knows our political system is rotten, but far too little attention is given to the individuals who, outside the media spotlight, have played such an instrumental role in turning democracy itself into the practice of public relations.

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