Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment

Conflicts Forum

15- 22 March 2013

Iraq War - Tenth Anniversary commentaryPaul Pillar, a former CIA officer and now professor at Georgetown University, reflecting back to that era, sees its key significancelying with the construction (post 9/11) of a political base for the pre-emptive and humanitarian justified overturning of Middle East regimes. He, along with others, is adamant it was not that the intelligence was wrong, but rather itnever supported the case for war:  What was so striking, he noted, was that there was no interest by policy-makers in the intelligence, beyond cherry-picking it to create this popular base. In fact, no one even read the intelligence (save for one Senator), and more than that, simply no one bothered to address whether going to war was a good idea or not.  Strikingly, Pillar’s assessment of the Iraqi legacy finds it mirror imaging in Russian commentary (see here): Putin saw the Iraq war as ‘unbelievably foolish’ too, but in principle saw that as the West’s problem to deal with (Putin still hoped then for a working relationship with the US). But Iraq subsequently played a major role in shaping Putin’s weltanschauung: Iraq foreshadowed a new era -- the strong do what they want, they ignore international law, global realities and the costs to themselves – and to others.  For Russia, the Iraq War subsequently was seen to herald the start of an accelerated destruction of regional and global stability – and ultimately the erosion of the world order. Everything that has happened since (Libya, Syria) has served to heighten this Russian sense of western strategic irrationality: ultimately ‘it will overwhelm all, including Russia’. In short, Russia views the Iraq War as the symptom of systemic internal crisis amongst western political elites. Another prominent Russian thinker suggests that the global financial crisis fits into the same pattern of creating a compliant base that fails to question financial strategic irrationality (until recently!)


  • The Region – ten years on: The Iraq War is seen by leading Arab commentators as the moment that the present sectarian conflicts presently engulfing the region were seeded by the West (and Saudi Arabia): initially facilitating Shi’i militias to be set against a Sunni insurgency, and then arming Sunni militias in Anbar Province to fight jihadists, but also to contain Iran and the Shi’i.  Veteran Iraq commentator, Patrick Cockburn, notes that these strategies – now deployed in Syria – take the contradictory form (or strategic irrationality) of France and Britain advocating the arming of the opposition ‘with the aim of ending the war more swiftly’ (more weapons will create the necessary ‘pressures’ for negotiation, rather than widening the conflict -- apparently) See here too for details of contagion from Syria (originally inherited from Iraq) now wending its way back to Iraq. A Sunni leader, now re-equipped courtesy of the Gulf - proclaims “our struggle is the same as in Syria. If Syria falls we are liberated; if we are liberated, Syria will be liberated. We have the same battle with Iran”. This time, he says, Sunnis are organised, trained and equipped: “Baghdad will be destroyed this time”. Cockburn ruefully notes: ‘the dimensions of the [regional] crisis have still not sunk in.  Soon, if it has not happened already, the area of Sunni insurgency will stretch from Fallujah up the Euphrates to Aleppo and to the shores of the Mediterranean”.

  • SyriaComments made by Secretary Kerry on 12 March -- which were not published in any mainstream western newspaper -- are nonetheless significant: “The world wants to stop the killing. And we want to be able to see Assad and the Syrian opposition come to the table for the creation of a transitional government according to the framework that was created in Geneva”. But, as foreshadowed in last week’s CF comment, Qatar did indeed stick its wrench between the US – Russian wheel spokes: a formerly unknown Muslim Brotherhood US citizen – under intense Qatari lobbying (see here) – was appointed ‘Prime Minister’ and immediately reverted to the earlier policy of no negotiations with the Syrian government. Qatar will now press for the latest opposition leader to take Syria’s seat at the Arab Summit at its meeting next week.  On Thursday, a suicide bomber blew himself up inside a mosque in Damascus in order to kill a prominent, pro-Assad Sunni clergyman. TheBBC’s Jim Muir proclaimed this simply as a blow to Assad, ignoring completely its importance: in a crowded mosque, body parts everywhere – Sunni on Sunni violence.  Hugely symbolic.

  • Obama in Israel and Palestine: Obama’s visit has sparked little interest in the region (beyond Israel itself). The White House had made clear beforehand that Obama was bringing no proposals in respect to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.  And indeed the iconic, Israeli – Palestinian conflict, has largely disappeared from the regional agenda.  US commentators saw the visit as essentially bilateral, rather than regional: the President has been irked by the taunts about his failing to engage with Israelis, and his purpose in visiting now was to re-set the US bilateral relationship – not so much with its government – but with the Israeli people: talking over the head of the government, in order to establish a direct empathy with the Israeli public. The President, by contrast, was received with some considerable hostility in Ramallah. If the visit had a political purpose beyond this simple aim, it probably was to make sure that Netanyahu understood that any Israeli stirring of the Iranian issue with the US Congress at this delicate juncture of Obama’s attempt to forge an economic understanding with Republican Party, would be singularly ill-received in Washington. For the moment, it seems, the Administration is content for the existing status quo (sanction activism) to continue (even if the Administration understands that Iran’s re-orientation to the East is making sanctions less and less effective).  There are few signs that the Administration believes this dispute can find its resolution at this time.

  • Palestinian Refugees becoming "Sunni exiles": An Israeli commentator, Dr Guy Bechor, writes interestingly that the external Palestinian refugee population is undergoing a significant and qualitative change as a result of the ‘Arab Upheaval’: From having been fossilised into a pattern of refugee communities in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan since 1948, change is afoot. Frozen as community symbols of the Palestinian ‘right of return’ until now, the current crisis and violence in the Arab world has been breaking up these historic symbolic entities.  As earlier in Iraq, Palestinian refugees now are fleeing places they have lived in since ’48 and ‘67 – intent not to become pawns, caught up in a civil war (as happened in Lebanon).  Guy Bechor argues that in the break-up of this pattern, Palestinian refugees are losing their identity: they are becoming Sunni exiles, more than Palestinian exiles. And, as nationalism and the nation-state withers in the face of assertive Salafism, what does this portend for the historic Palestinian project of national liberation? In short, he implies that Palestinian refugees and the “refugee problem” are fading before the widening rift between those who adhere to a transnational Islamic state and the mainly secular minority asserting a style of nationhood, which clearly is not available to the Palestinians in the foreseeable future.  The implication is that religious symbols are predominating over national symbols.


One Comment

  1. Eric Green wrote:

    Really pleased with this new weekly summary from CF. I was first alerted to CF when the Syrian conflict was starting and found articles(sometimes reproduced in Asia Times)a very helpful counterbalance to mainstream media reporting. However more recently CF reporting seemed to be drying up sadly, so its re-emergence in this form is very welcome. The statement about Kerry’s comments about negotiations for Syria not been reported by mainstream media is typical of what we have come to expect( demonising of Assad; excuses for or non reporting of Opposition atrocities). Exceptions have been occasional articles by Patrick Cockburn in the Independent, Seamus Milne in the Guardian and Alex Thompson of Channel 4. Comments about Jim Muir are a sad reflection of the grotesque one sided reporting of the BBC on Syria( and conversely on Saudi Arabia….the BBC never questions the alleged links between the Saudi regime and Sunni terrorism in many countries via the Wahabhi set up). Jim also made the same sort of weak comments about the suicide bombings in Baghdad a week earlier. After the previous mass killing of civilians in Damascus by terrorists, William Hague(UK Foreign Secretary)said that the loss of life was regretted but it simply affirmed the need for Assad to go…Al Qaeda, please carry on, you have our support?? Sad because I would normally have a lot of respect for Hague; perhaps he is under enormous pressure from “his allies”?