Reprieve – October 2, 2015
The US government has asked a D.C. court to dismiss the case of a Yemeni man whose family members were killed by a US drone strike, on the basis that he has no legal ‘standing’ to bring a case against them.
Earlier this year, Mr bin Ali Jaber filed a lawsuit against President Obama, seeking a declaration from a federal court in Washington, D.C., that the 2012 strike was unlawful and his innocent relatives were wrongfully killed. The Obama administration yesterday filed a motion asking the court to dismiss Mr bin Ali Jaber’s case entirely. They argued that Mr Jaber has no standing – i.e. that he has no legal right to bring his case in the US – and that whether a US drone killed his relatives is a ‘political question’ that no court should review.
However, in November 2013 Mr bin Ali Jaber travelled to Washington, D.C. where he had meetings with White House and NSC officials about his relative’s deaths. No US official suggested then that Mr. Jaber, who is the appointed representative of the Jaber family estates, lacked authority to speak for the family.
Faisal lost his nephew Waleed and his brother-in-law Salem in a US drone attack in the village of Khashamir on August 29 2012. Waleed was a local policeman, and Salem was an imam who was known for speaking out against al-Qaeda in his sermons – including on the Friday before he was killed. After the strike and Faisal’s travels to the US, Faisal’s relatives were given a plastic bag containing $100,000 in sequentially-marked US dollar bills as a condolence payment, but the US has never admitted responsibility for the killings.
Mr bin Ali Jaber had previously written to the White House offering to settle the case on one condition – that he receive a public apology from the US. He did so in the footsteps of President Obama’s apology, earlier this year, to the families of Giovanni Lo Porto and Warren Weinstein, an Italian and an American citizen who were killed in a US drone strike in Pakistan in January. It marked the first known US acknowledgement of responsibility for civilian deaths under the drone programme.
In a letter to President Obama, Cori Crider – Mr bin Ali Jaber’s lawyer at human rights organization Reprieve – writes: “I write today to make a formal offer of settlement. In consideration for dropping this lawsuit, Mr. Jaber asks for nothing more than what you gave the families of Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto: an apology and an explanation as to why a strike that killed two innocent civilians was authorized.”
Covert strikes by the CIA in Yemen and Pakistan are believed to have killed hundreds of civilians, but the US has never formally admitted responsibility beyond the deaths of Mr Lo Porto and Mr Weinstein.
Cori Crider, attorney for Faisal bin Ali Jaber and a director at international human rights charity Reprieve, said: “Once again we see the yawning gulf between this President’s rhetoric on drones and the reality. President Obama once said innocent drone deaths would haunt him as long as he lives – so why, then, does sorry seem to be the hardest word? It is insulting to my client to be told he has no right to represent his family’s estate, when White House officials certainly thought he was worthy of meetings in Washington. The US is now trying its level best to block Faisal’s quest for justice by kicking him out of the courts. There is no good reason that the President stood up in front of the world with the Lo Porto and Weinstein families to say sorry for the US’ tragic mistake, but can’t do so for a Yemeni man. The hypocrisy of the Administration’s stance sends a harmful message, telling the entire Muslim world that its lives have no value to the United States.”
The Netherlands dropped their bid to establish an independent UN-led probe into alleged war crimes in Yemen, yielding to an alternative resolution proposed by Saudi Arabia, which stands accused of causing most of the civilian deaths in the conflict.
The Saudis are leading a coalition of countries, whcih since late March has been using their military to attack Houthi rebels in Yemen in an attempt to put ousted President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi back into power. According to UN numbers published on Tuesday, at least 2,355 civilians have been killed during the six months of the conflict. The majority of them died in Saudi attacks.
The latest of alleged atrocities in the Yemen war is an apparent Saudi airstrike that killed 131 guests at a wedding party. The Saudis, who have air superiority in Yemeni airspace, denied any involvement.
According to Amnesty International, many civilian killings in Yemen can be considered war crimes. In September, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein called for an independent, international inquiry into alleged war crimes in the country. The Netherlands submitted a draft resolution to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) shortly after, which among other things called for UN experts to be sent to Yemen to investigate allegations of crimes committed by all parties involved. The proposal was backed by a number of European countries.
The document was opposed by Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, all members of the council, as well as the Yemeni government in exile. The Saudis allegedly won their place at the council through a secret deal with the British government, according to the cables exposed by whistleblower website WikiLeaks.
The Saudis proposed an alternative resolution that doesn’t provide for an independent international inquiry and instead calls on the UN to support a probe led by the Hadi government. Human rights groups objected to the Saudi draft resolution, saying it would put a belligerent party in charge of the probe and would ultimately leave Saudi crimes obscured.
While the Saudis kept pushing for their draft resolution to be passed, the US kept mostly silent on the debate, and didn’t voice support for the Dutch proposal. Last week, American UN envoy Samantha Power released an ambiguously worded statement on the issue, which said Washington was “following the ongoing discussions in Geneva closely.”
“We do believe the Human Rights Council and OHCHR [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] have an important role to play regarding the humanitarian situation, and look forward to working with our colleagues in Geneva,” Powers said.
The US helps its Arab ally Saudi Arabia in the Yemen bombing campaign with logistics and targeting. America is also the biggest provider of weapons for Saudi’s armed forces.
On Wednesday, the Netherlands announced they were dropping their draft resolution, leaving the Saudi document the only contestant for UN endorsement. Washington’s de facto opposition to the document played a significant role in its eventual demise, according to Vice News.
“It was terrible, the US was silent for a very long time,” Nicolas Agostini, Geneva representative for the International Federation For Human Rights, told Vice News. “The Dutch should have had public support from key partners including the US throughout the process.
“By the second week of negotiations, it became clear they wouldn’t get that kind of support. [America’s] very late public expression of support for the Dutch text, and emphasis on the need to reach consensus, de facto benefited the Saudis.”
The United Nations says despite a surge in the international community’s humanitarian aid to help those affected by the conflict in Syria, the sum hardly keeps up with the rising needs of the afflicted people.
UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien made the remark on Saturday while on a tour of the Zaatari camp, which is Jordan’s largest facility for Syrian refugees.
When asked about the aid shortage, O’Brien said that “need has risen so much that even though we are securing record amounts of funding, record amounts of political will and support, nonetheless the (funding) gap has widened,” because of protracted conflicts in the region, such as those in Syria, South Sudan and Yemen.
Meanwhile, Hovig Etyemezian, the director of the UN-run Zaatari refugee camp, said the international community “hasn’t woken up yet to the need to assist Jordan” to address the refugee crisis.
For 2015, aid agencies requested over USD 7.4 billion, both for refugees and those internally displaced by the crisis in Syria. However, the agencies have received only USD 2.8 billion so far, according the UN refugee agency.
Refugee aid programs in host countries such as Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt and Iraq were reportedly just 41 percent funded as of September.
In a separate development on Sunday, German Minister of Economic Cooperation and Development Gerd Muller announced that Berlin would donate USD 22.6 million to the World Food Program (WFP) to supply Syrian refugees with food.
“This means that around 500,000 Syrian refugees in the region can be supplied with food for three months,” Muller told the German Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
In late July, the WFP slashed by half its food assistance for Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon due to a funding crisis.
The foreign-sponsored conflict in Syria, which flared in March 2011, has reportedly claimed more than 240,000 lives up until now.
The latest Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen have left dozens of civilians dead and nearly 160 injured at a time that sees medical facilities struggling to provide even the most basic services. The country is suffering from a shortage of vital supplies due to the ongoing blockade.
The coalition air raids against Houthi forces in Sanaa overnight on Friday killed at least 40 civilians and injured at least another 130 people, Yemen News Agency (SABA) reported.
One strike leveled an apartment building in the center of the city killing a family of nine, while another strike killed a man who had been searching for his family in the rubble, AP reported. The coalition has even managed to attack Yemen’s interior ministry in the capital, launching about 10 strikes at the building as well as at a police camp and a military building close to it.
The airstrikes also hit the residence of Oman’s ambassador in Sanaa.
“Oman received with deep regret yesterday’s news targeting the ambassador’s home in Sanaa, which is a clear violation of international charters and norms that emphasize the inviolability of diplomatic premises,” the foreign affairs ministry’s statement said.
A further 38 civilians were killed by the airstrikes in the northern province of Saada while another 27 were left wounded, according to a DPA-interviewed official.
Meanwhile civilians suffering violence on the ground and the wrath of the Saudi-led aerial campaign continue to face humanitarian crises, with fuel and vital medical supplies running out. The health ministry issued a statement saying that it is overwhelmed by the amount of wounded as it lacks basic medicines necessary for treating the injured. The plea call also said that medical facilities lack fuel to operate ambulances and hospital equipment, SABA reports.
“At the moment we only have enough fuel in the north and centre of the country for the next six weeks,” Mark Kaye, the acting director of advocacy for Save the Children in Yemen, told The Independent. As well as no electricity for households and petrol for vehicles “that means no fuel for hospitals, who rely on generators for their work.”
The official UN death toll figures illustrate that almost 4,900 people have been killed since Saudi forces began their bombardment of Yemen late March. The UN aid chief has called the scale of human suffering “almost incomprehensible.”
The Financial Times recently reported that Nobel Peace Prize recipient Barack Obama has conducted ten times more drone strikes than his predecessor George W. Bush. As far as we can tell, that number is somewhere in the ballpark of 500 strikes and spans a wide array of countries including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya. We can’t know for sure exactly how many drone attacks have taken place, who is conducting them, how many people have been killed by them, or how many other countries have been victim.
It’s important to Obama that the extent of his drone wars remain secret. His peaceful veneer would quickly disintegrate if we had an accurate Obama-death-toll. Drone wars have been kept so secret, in fact, that Obama’s former Press Secretary, Robert Gibbs, revealed that he was instructed not to acknowledge or discuss their existence. A handful of investigative journalist groups like The Long War Journal have been left conducting important but difficult guess work about Obama’s drone wars, as if putting together a large puzzle one small piece at a time.
All the while, the American public is left clueless as to the activities being conducted in their name. Obama proclaims that “a decade of war is over,” while behind the scenes he expands the scope of the War on Terror. As a result of our being kept largely ignorant of our government’s actions, we are all the more astounded when the consequences of such wars come to fruition.
The phenomenon of blowback results from the American government’s actions abroad which cause tremendous resentment within local populations. When retaliation for these actions arrives at our shores or against Americans abroad, as it inevitably does, the American public is shocked and appalled, wondering what could possibly prompt such heinous actions. Hungry for answers, Americans are then fed simple explanations by politicians, such as, “they hate our way of life,” or “their religion commands them to commit such acts.” Never are we provided the context in which such reprisals occur. And because so many Americans willingly accept the state’s spoon-fed version of events, they largely tolerate a domestic police and surveillance state that is said to keep them safe from such “terrorists.”
Tribal areas of Afghanistan surveyed about the psychological effects of drones reveal a people living in terror, unable to sleep, with children often kept home from school for fear they’ll be targeted. Though generally out of sight, drones can constantly be heard buzzing overhead, creating a persistent state of fear. Despite our being told of the precision of drone strikes, subject populations have described massive civilian casualties and widespread destruction of property.
Consequently, large swaths of these foreign populations living under drones view the United States in a negative light. One Pew Research Center study found that three quarters of Pakistanis now view Americans as the enemy. One would expect similar numbers from the many other countries across the Middle East and Africa in which America now conducts drone strikes. Blowback is not limited to those directly terrorized by drones either. General Stanley McChrystal stated “resentment created by [drones] … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one.”
Though it’s shrouded in secrecy, this new form of American warfare will be Obama’s legacy. The “sanitization” of war offered by drones (introduced on a grand scale by Obama) all but ensures America will never again be without foreign conflict at the hands of crazed politicians. As drone technology continues to improve, the rest of the world will be more at risk of attack by the American war machine, and Americans less safe as a result. As Obama’s time in the White House winds down, let’s remember that he escalated the War on Terror. He’s offered his successors the safety of precedent to fall back on and opened new frontiers for American military demolition. Barack Obama had the opportunity to curtail America’s destructiveness around the world, and instead, he amplified it.
Seven months ago, UK Prime Minister David Cameron lamented the “sickening murder” of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kaseasbeh by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). President Barack Obama also decried the “viciousness and barbarity” of the act. In his home country, al-Kaseasbeh was remembered as a “hero” and a “martyr” by government officials. Obama even declared his murder demonstrated ISIS’s “bankrupt” ideology. The killing was seen by the Western coalition and allied Arab monarchies fighting ISIS as a symbol of the evilness of their enemies, and by contrast the righteousness of their own cause.
The act that precipitated such a strong outpouring was the purported execution of the 26-year-old al-Kaseasbeh. He was burned alive inside a cage after several months in captivity. As part of ISIS’s propaganda campaign, they posted the video on Youtube. The authenticity of the video has since been questioned, but there is no doubt that regardless of the method used, he was indeed killed.
Al-Kaseasbeh was not an innocent civilian. In fact, he was a pilot in the Royal Jordanian Air Force who was bombing territory controlled by ISIS in an F-16 fighter jet. That is to say, he was an active combatant in military hostilities. His combatant status would be equivalent to an ISIS pilot (if they had an Air Force) apprehended after bombing New York City or London. Though it was reported in the British newspaper The Telegraph that al-Kaseasbeh was “kidnapped,” a military combatant engaged in armed conflict on the battlefield cannot be kidnapped. He was captured.
According to the Geneva Conventions, Prisoners of War enjoy protected status that guarantees their humane treatment and eventual release at the end of hostilities. “POWs cannot be prosecuted for taking a direct part in hostilities. Their detention is not a form of punishment, but only aims to prevent further participation in the conflict. They must be released and repatriated without delay after the end of hostilities,” writes the International Committee of the Red Cross.
ISIS would have no legal grounds to kill al-Kaseasbeh, but it was cynical and sanctimonious for the Western coalition to react with such outrage when he was killed. Those same countries have embraced and celebrated summary assassinations and executions on a scale far more massive than anything ISIS could ever be capable of.
Several weeks ago, Cameron ordered the assassination of two British citizens in Syria alleged to be ISIS militants.
“The strike against British citizen Reyaad Khan, the ‘target of the strike,’ was committed without approval from Parliament. British citizen Ruhul Amin, who was killed in the strike, was deemed an ‘associate’ worthy of death,” writes Kevin Gosztola in Shadowproof.
The British government has not declared war on Syria and has not released any legal justification for its actions. Naturally, any legal documentation they did produce would be merely psuedo-legal cover that would never withstand real judicial scrutiny.
Cameron’s actions in ordering the murder of his own citizens follows the well-treaded path of Obama, whose large-scale drone program in as many as seven countries (none of which the US Congress has declared war on) have killed more than 2,500 people in six years. The President has quipped that he is “really good at killing people.”
By any measure, the drone assassination program has been wildly reckless and ineffective. One study determined that missile strikes from unmanned drones, launched by remote-control jockeys in air-controlled trailers in the American desert, kill 28 unknown people for every intended target. In Pakistan, a study revealed that only 4% of those killed have been identified as members of al Qaeda.
Among the victims have been 12 people on their way to a wedding in Yemen, and a 13-year-old boy who said that he lived in constant fear of “death machines” that had already killed his father and brother before taking his own life.
“A lot of the kids in this area wake up from sleeping because of nightmares from then and some now have mental problems. They turned our area into hell and continuous horror, day and night, we even dream of them in our sleep,” the now-deceased boy, Mohammed Tuaiman, told The Guardian.
Before Cameron did so, Obama also targeted citizens of his own country for assassination without trial. The most well known case is of Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by a drone strike in 2011. The government claimed he was operationally active in al-Qaeda, but this was never tested in court.
“It is likely the real reason Anwar al-Awlaki was killed is that he was seen as a radicalizer whose ideological activities were capable of driving Western Muslims to terrorist violence,” writes Arun Kundnani in The Muslims Are Coming!.
In other words, the Obama administration decided his speech was not protected by the 1st amendment to the US Constitution, and rather than being obligated to test this theory in court they unilaterally claimed the right to assassinate him, the way King John of England would have been able to order the execution of one of his subjects before signing the Magna Carta 800 years ago.
Three weeks later, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son was killed in a drone strike. An Obama adviser justified the strike by saying he should have “had a more responsible father.”
Writing on his blog, former British security services officer Craig Murray claims that in light of the decision 20 years ago by the European Court of Human Rights that targeted assassinations when an attack was no imminent were illegal, the British government cannot claim its drone strike in Syria “is anything other than murder.”
“For the government to claim the right to kill British people through sci-fi execution, based on highly unreliable secret intelligence and a secret declaration of legality, is so shocking I find it difficult to believe it is happening even as I type the words. Are we so cowed as to accept this?” Murray writes.
So what makes ISIS’s killing supposedly morally outrageous compared to the US and British drone strikes?
Was ISIS’s killing less morally justified? Al-Kaseasbeh was a combatant who had been dropping bombs on the people who eventually killed him. That much is beyond dispute. The US and UK kill people through drone strikes merely for being suspected militants who might one day seek to attack those countries.
Were ISIS’s methods less humane? Certainly burning a human being alive is sadistic and cruel. But is it any less so to incinerate a human being by a Hellfire missile? Former drone operator Brandon Bryant told NBC News that he saw his victim “running forward, he’s missing his right leg… And I watch this guy bleed out and, I mean, the blood is hot.” Is a drone strike less cruel because the operator is thousands of miles away from the bloodshed and watching on a screen rather than in person?
Were ISIS’s actions terrorism while the US/UK actions were not? As the late Mohammed Tuaiman attested, he and his neighbors were terrified by the omnipresence of the “death machines” that could at any second of the day blow him to pieces without warning or the possibility of escape. Were the people in ISIS controlled territory as terrorized as Tuaiman by the burning of the Jordanian pilot, who was specifically targeted because he had been caught after bombing the same people who now held him captive? Surely they were not more terrorized, though perhaps they might have been equally so.
It would by hypocritical to justify one form of extrajudicial killing while demonizing another. Yet that is exactly what happens when one form of violence is undertaken by a state and another is not. The New York Times is indicative of broader public opinion when it decries the “fanatical vision” of ISIS that has “shocked and terrified the peoples of Iraq and Syria,” while accepting Obama’s rationalizations of deaths via drone strikes as collateral damage, maintaining only that he should “provide a fuller accounting” to enable an “informed debate.”
The apologies for state violence enable the shredding of the rule of law as a method of accountability for those in power, while other states take advantage of technical advances to proliferate their own sci-fi violence against their own citizens and others.
“Pakistan is the latest member of a growing technological club of nations: those who have successfully weaponized drones,” writes Spencer Ackerman in The Guardian. “In addition to the US, UK and Israel, a recent New America Foundation report highlighted credible accounts that Iran, South Africa, France, China and Somalia possess armed drones, as do the terrorist groups [sic] Hamas and Hezbollah. Russia says it is working on its own model.”
One day in the not too distant future, the skies across the world may be full of drones from every country dispensing justice from Miami to Mumbai via Hellfire Missiles, relegating the rule of law and its method of trial by jury to the ash heap of history. And it will not be because of terrorist groups like ISIS that governments and the media are so forceful to condemn, but because of governments themselves and their lapdogs in the media who refuse to apply the same standards in judging violence to states that have their own Air Forces.
It has long been an article of faith that despite whatever slipups it might make along the way in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives, the United States is always motivated by a sincerely held desire to promote democracy and human rights around the world, which in turn is seen as vital in ensuring global stability and prosperity.
While the roots of this principle can be traced back to the days of “Manifest Destiny” – the prevalent mid-19th century view that it was Anglo-Saxon Americans’ providential mission to expand their civilization westward across North America – and can be identified in the pronouncements of presidents including Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, it was perhaps most eagerly embraced by George W. Bush, who claimed it as his divine mission to combat tyranny around the world. He called it “the Freedom Agenda.”
In the waning days of the Bush presidency, on Jan. 12, 2009, the White House even issued a “fact sheet” attempting to secure Bush’s legacy and defend his record in “spreading freedom,” which by then had already been largely discredited thanks to the disastrous U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
“President Bush has kept his pledge to strengthen democracy and promote peace around the world,” the fact sheet read. “He has promoted the spread of freedom as the great alternative to the terrorists’ ideology of hatred, because expanding liberty and democracy will help defeat extremism and protect the American people.”
Although it was never fully articulated precisely how the use of U.S. military force would “promote the spread of freedom,” the so-called Freedom Agenda had broad appeal among American neo-conservatives, arms manufacturers and others who had a vested interest in expanding U.S. power and deepening the nation’s involvement in geopolitical hotspots.
The narrative of “spreading freedom” also resonated with an American public long conditioned to believe that as the self-evident “good guys,” the U.S. could do no wrong – or, even if it did occasionally “make mistakes,” it was nevertheless guided by altruistic motives and therefore given a pass when “blunders” took place. Much of the rest of the world also may have reluctantly accepted some American boorishness as the price to be paid for all the “good” that the U.S. did in promoting democracy and providing security.
But with the world now clearly in a state of rising instability and insecurity on multiple fronts – with refugee crises, violent extremism, economic volatility and climate chaos threatening to undermine the very foundations of civilization throughout Asia, Africa, Europe and North America – it has become increasingly obvious how misguided these policies have been.
Rather than establishing liberty and democracy as the irrefutable and irresistible alternatives to hatred and extremism, U.S. military involvement in the Middle East has played a key role in creating the conditions that have given rise to vicious groups like the Islamic State, or ISIS. The ongoing wars to “spread freedom” in the region have led to a humanitarian disaster and refugee crisis, the likes of which haven’t been seen in many decades.
Although the link between U.S.-led wars and the rise of extremism was once primarily made by left-wing dissidents and what conservatives dismissed as the “blame-America-first crowd,” at some point during the Bush years the link became so obvious that even so-called “serious” people in the intelligence community and foreign policy establishment began publicly stating this case.
Nearly a decade ago, a National Intelligence Estimate – representing the consensus view of the 16 spy services inside the government – starkly warned that a whole new generation of Islamic radicalism was being spawned by the U.S. occupation of Iraq. According to one American intelligence official, the consensus was that “the Iraq war has made the overall terrorism problem worse.”
The assessment noted that several underlying factors were “fueling the spread of the jihadist movement,” including “entrenched grievances, such as corruption, injustice, and fear of Western domination, leading to anger, humiliation, and a sense of powerlessness,” and “pervasive anti-U.S. sentiment among most Muslims – all of which jihadists exploit.”
But rather than leading to substantive changes or reversals in U.S. policies, the strategy agreed upon in Washington seemed to be to double down on the failed policies that had given rise to radical jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which later vomited up its brutal offshoot ISIS. In fact, instead of withdrawing from Iraq, the U.S. decided to send a surge of 20,000 troops in 2007, and the combat mission dragged on well into President Barack Obama’s first term, despite being elected on a wave of antiwar sentiment in 2008.
After its failure in Iraq, the U.S. turned its attention to Libya, overthrowing the government of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 utilizing armed militias implicated in war crimes and backed with NATO air power. Following Gaddafi’s ouster, his caches of weapons ended up being shuttled to rebels in Syria, fueling the civil war there. The U.S. also took a keen interest in destabilizing the Syrian regime and to do so began providing arms that often fell into the hands of extremists.
The CIA trained and armed so-called moderate rebel units in Syria, only to watch these groups switch sides by joining forces with Islamist brigades such as ISIS and al-Qaeda’s affiliate the Nusra Front. Others surrendered to Sunni extremist groups – with the U.S.-provided weapons presumably ending up in the arsenals of jihadists – or sometimes just quit or went missing altogether.
As the Wall Street Journal rather dryly reported last January, “All sides now agree that the U.S.’s effort to aid moderate fighters battling the Assad regime has gone badly.”
The moderates only managed to hold control over small pockets of northern Syria, while radical jihadists gained ground culminating earlier this month in the seizure of the last major oilfield under Syrian government control by ISIS.
As the Sunni extremist groups have consolidated control, the ranks of refugees have swelled, overwhelming authorities in European countries who lack any sort of cohesive policy to deal with the crisis. The numbers of refugees are growing as attacks by rebels have increased in recent months, with the United Nations now projecting that at least 850,000 people will cross the Mediterranean seeking refuge in Europe this year and next.
Although Assad continues to be blamed for the vast majority of civilian deaths in the civil war, rebel mortar attacks on Damascus and a wave of car bombings in major cities like Lattakia, Aleppo, Homs, Hassakeh and Qamishli have driven thousands from their homes, according to the UN High Commissioner on Refugees.
“Inside Syria, the last few months have been brutal,” UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming told a press briefing in Geneva on Sept. 8. “Fighting has intensified in almost all governorates.”
As bad as it currently is, the situation will likely dramatically worsen if the Assad regime collapses. Already, some are predicting a dramatic upsurge in refugees fleeing the country if the Islamist groups continue their advance on Damascus.
Writing in the British Independent on Sept. 6, Patrick Cockburn noted that ISIS is currently threatening to capture a crucial road, the M5 highway, which is the last major route connecting government-held territory in Damascus to the north and west of the country. The loss of this highway “could touch off a panic and the exodus of several million refugees from government areas, in addition to the four million who have already fled,” Cockburn warns.
Stressing that the Assad government at the moment is relatively secure, Cockburn predicts that “any sign that it is weakening will convince millions of Syrians that it is time to leave the country” in a last-ditch attempt to flee the brutality of ISIS.
‘Bad, Bad Sick Joke’
Reelected by large margins last year in a partial presidential election (excluding areas of Syria not under government control), Assad is widely viewed as the protector of Syria’s Christian, Shiite and Alawite minorities, groups that will likely be among the first victims of ISIS’s mass executions should they seize control of Damascus.
But despite this reality and the already dire situation of refugees fleeing to Europe and elsewhere, Western governments are doing little to help end the Syrian civil war. In fact, true to form, while the U.S. attempts to block Russia from providing any sort of support to the Assad government, it continues to fuel the war by supporting rebel groups with training, weapons, and air support.
A $500 million Pentagon program meant to replace or supplement the CIA’s earlier training program with a view towards more comprehensively supporting “moderate” Syrian rebels is reportedly being re-examined in light of criticism that the first group of U.S.-trained Syrian fighters was handily defeated by a Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda in late July. The Islamists apparently attacked the group and took an unspecified number hostage, with the remaining fighters fleeing and still unaccounted for.
As the Associated Press reported on Wednesday, “Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook offered no details on how the program could be revamped, but told reporters that Defense Secretary Ash Carter still believes training and equipping moderate Syrian rebels and sending them into battle against the Islamic State is the right strategy.”
Despite these reassurances, congressional hawks like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are withdrawing their support for the program just a year after Congress authorized it. “It’s a bad, bad sick joke,” said McCain of the program, while Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) called it “a bigger disaster than I could have ever imagined.”
But perhaps this just goes to show how limited U.S. policymakers’ imaginations are and how tone-deaf they remain to criticisms and words of caution. Russia, for one, has long been raising concerns over Washington’s support for the Syrian rebels, which is blamed not only for the refugee crisis destabilizing Europe but also the failure to defeat the Islamic extremists in Syria.
Russian criticisms reached a new height last month when it was announced that the U.S. would be providing air support to the rebels fighting both Assad and ISIS. Officials in Moscow warned on Aug. 3 that Obama’s decision to back allied Syrian rebels with airstrikes would unleash wider chaos and instability in Syria.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia has “repeatedly underlined that help to the Syrian opposition, moreover financial and technical assistance, leads to further destabilization of the situation in the country.”
But now it is Washington that has gone on the offensive in the war of words between the U.S. and Russia. Following reports that Russia sent a military advance team to Syria, State Department officials objected to what they call Russia’s military “buildup” in Syria.
In a call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “reiterated our concern about these reports of Russian military activities, or buildup if you will, in Syria and made very clear our view that, if true and borne out, could lead to greater violence and even more instability in Syria,” according to State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Who’s Destabilizing Whom?
It’s a classic tactic of Washington – when it is guilty of destabilizing a country, it points the finger at another culprit to deflect attention from the mess that it has made. Yet, far from being the result of Russian meddling, the destabilization of Syria starting in 2011 can actually be traced back to 2001, when plans were hatched in the Pentagon for taking out governments in seven Middle Eastern countries.
According to former NATO Commander General Wesley Clark, shortly after 9/11 he was shown a confidential memo by a general at the Pentagon detailing plans to overthrow governments in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Iran.
Of those seven, two governments (Iraq and Libya) were subsequently overthrown, one country (Sudan) was cut in half, one (Somalia) became “the most failed state on earth” and two (Syria and Lebanon) have been destabilized. War with Iran was only narrowly averted thanks to multilateral diplomacy and perhaps a little luck.
The reality is, the four-year old civil war in Syria, fueled in large part by Washington’s training and arming of the rebels, appears to have the goal of implementing “regime change” through an armed insurgency, much in the same way as it has done in other countries, including most recently Libya.
This is Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in action, and the four million Syrians who have already fled their homeland could rightly be considered “Freedom Agenda refugees.”
The dangers of pursuing these policies are palpable, as we see the worst refugee crisis since World War II playing out across Europe, but the worst of the ramifications may be yet to come.
Destabilizing the World
When it comes to Syria, the refugees who have already fled mostly came from opposition or contested areas that have been devastated by fighting. But most of the 17 million Syrians still in the country live in government-controlled areas, which are now increasingly threatened by ISIS. If these people find themselves more exposed to ISIS’s notorious brutality, they will likely swell the ranks of refugees beyond anything we have seen to date.
And this is only Syria. It should be kept in mind that another U.S.-fueled war in nearby Yemen – the poorest country in the Middle East – could contribute to yet another wave of refugees attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe.
In a recent report, Amnesty International described the situation in Yemen as dire. “Prior to the conflict, more than half of Yemen’s population was in need of some humanitarian assistance,” according to Amnesty. “That number has now increased to more than 80 percent, while a coalition-imposed blockade on commercial imports remains in place in much of the country and the ability of international aid agencies to deliver desperately needed supplies continues to be hindered by the conflict.”
The human rights group points out that although the United States is not formally part of the Saudi-led coalition, “it is assisting the coalition air campaign by providing intelligence and aerial refueling facilities to coalition bomber jets,” as well as weapons including banned cluster munitions being used against Yemeni civilians.
Its assistance “makes the United States partly responsible for civilian casualties resulting from unlawful attacks,” says Amnesty, noting that “the countries that supplied the weapons have a responsibility to ensure that they are not used to commit violations of international law.”
In another recent report, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute documented that the U.S. has become further entrenched as the world’s top exporter of weapons, now accounting for 31 percent of all arms sales around the world. SIPRI noted that the volume of U.S. arms exports rose by 23 percent since 2005, with the biggest increase in transfers going to the Middle East.
Besides flooding the planet with small arms and light weapons, heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and warships, the U.S. has also increased its military assistance to various countries through joint exercises and training missions.
Nick Turse reported at the Intercept on Wednesday that “from 2012 to 2014 some of America’s most elite troops — including Navy SEALs and Army Green Berets — carried out 500 Joint Combined Exchange Training missions around the world.”
Many of these missions are contributing to rising tensions everywhere from Eastern Europe to the Korean Peninsula. Taken together, they are certainly cause for concern for anyone hoping to live in a world at peace and security. Indeed, the fallout from the Freedom Agenda playing out now in Syria could be just the beginning unless U.S. policymakers take a step back and reassess their actions across the globe.
The conflict in Yemen has been exacerbated by the UK government’s arms deals with Saudi Arabia, causing a terrible humanitarian catastrophe and potentially placing the government in breach of international law, Oxfam UK has said.
The ongoing war has seen Saudi Arabia, backed by US and UK arms, carry out airstrikes on Houthi rebels attempting to take control of Yemen.
International law states that arms deals should be prohibited if there is a risk they could be used to commit war crimes or human rights abuses, the charity said, adding the UK’s response to the conflict has been a “paradox.”
The British government insists is has not been directly involved in the bombings, but Oxfam says the UK has been replenishing Saudi weapons since the conflict began. Simultaneously, it has been donating money from the Department of International Development to aid the millions of civilians caught up in Saudi bombing raids, which have targeted factories, warehouses and markets.
Oxfam Chief Executive Mark Goldring called the conflict a “humanitarian disaster.”
“Yemen has descended into a humanitarian disaster putting its people at risk of famine and the UK is materially involved through its export of arms and military support to the bombing campaign. An estimated eight children a day are killed or injured in Yemen’s conflict. The ongoing conflict in Syria and the refugee crisis it has produced show why it is so vitally important to search for political solutions before it is too late. It is time the government stopped supporting this war and put every possible effort into bringing an end to the carnage.
“There is a paradox at the heart of the government’s approach to Yemen. On the one hand the Department for International Development is funding efforts to help civilians caught up in the conflict, while on the other the government is fueling the conflict that is causing unbearable human suffering,” he said.
“The UK successfully lobbied hard over many years for a UN Arms Trade Treaty to regulate the arms trade which came into being last year. This government has incorporated the treaty into national law, yet at the first test of the new law it has turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of potential misuse of its weapons and support.”
The charity is calling for a suspension of arms trading with Saudi Arabia and a full investigation into the legal implications of its trade with the country, as well as a push for more humanitarian aid.
Its plea comes after an investigation into the conflict by BBC’s Newsnight revealed the plight of civilians in Yemen, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes.
The report showed one target of a Saudi airstrike believed to have been a training camp and arms factory. In actual fact the target was a water-bottling plant. The airstrike killed many workers, some as young as 13.
I’m confused about quite a lot of things going on in the world. The West is supposed to be fighting ISIS, yet seems keener on toppling a government which is fighting ISIS. A refugee crisis caused by Western interventions is being used as a pretext for more Western wars.
Elite media commentators keen to stress their humanitarianism, cry ‘something must be done’ about Syria, yet appear not to notice the on-going humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen.
There are violent anti-government protests again in Ukraine, but the reaction from the US is very different to when there were violent anti-government protests in Ukraine eighteen months ago. What on earth is going on? Perhaps you can help me sort out my confusion…
The first thing I’m confused about is the refugee crisis currently affecting Europe.
The vast majority of refugees are coming from countries e.g. Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, Iraq, which were targeted by the West for ‘regime change’ and which experienced bombing/invasion or destabilization by NATO powers and their regional allies.
We’re told by the West’s political elite and much of the media that in order to stop the influx of refugees to Europe we need to do more bombing.
But if bombing solves the problem of refugees, why are people fleeing from countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan and Libya that the West has already bombed?
How can more bombs and intervention solve a problem caused by bombs and intervention? And how can the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria stop ISIS, which doesn’t have an air force?
I’m confused. Can anyone help me?
On the subject of Syria I’m confused about the West’s obsession with toppling President Assad and his government. The secular Syrian government does not and did not threaten the West, and its sworn enemies are the groups- such as Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, which we are supposed to have been fighting ‘a war on terror’ against. If radical Islamist terror groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS are such a danger, why are we still trying to topple a government which has been fighting them? Why does UK Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne say that the British Parliament’s refusal to support US-led air-strikes on the Syrian government in 2013 was “one of the worst decisions the House of Commons has ever made” when voting ‘Yes’ would have put the RAF on the same side as ISIS – a group which claimed responsibility for the killing of 30 British tourists on a beach in Tunisia earlier this summer? Surely if our leaders really wanted to defeat ISIS, they would be working with countries in the region that have a vested interest in defeating ISIS – like the government in Syria – and not working to overthrow them, which would only help ISIS.
I’m confused. Can anyone help me?
I’m confused about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
It’s the proposed free trade deal between the free, open democracies of Europe, and that bastion of democracy the US, but the deal itself is shrouded in secrecy and can only be read by politicians in a secure reading room in Brussels.
If TTIP is so great- as its supporters claim, why can’t we see its terms and provisions? Why in ‘democratic’ Europe, where our leaders all claim to support public participation in the political process, are we being kept in the dark over a deal which is likely to have a major impact on our daily lives? I’m confused. Can anyone help me?
I’m confused too about events in Yemen, and the lack of concern from Western ’humanitarian interventionists’ over what is happening in the country.
A Saudi-Arabian led alliance has been bombing Yemen since March – yet despite Amnesty International reporting that the bombing campaign has left a “bloody trail of civilian death and destruction paved with evidence of war crimes”- the West‘s “Something Must Be Done” brigade have been strangely silent.
“The civilian population is bearing the brunt of the conflict: a shocking four out of five Yemenis require humanitarian assistance and nearly 1.5 million people are internally displaced,” says Stephen O’Brien, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator.
In Libya in 2011 we had a no-fly zone imposed to prevent massacres that might happen- in Yemen, we’re seeing large scale casualties as a result of airstrikes but this time there’s no calls for NFZs from Western leaders or ‘liberal interventionists’ in the media.
Why was there a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ civilians in Libya in 2011, but not a ‘Responsibility to Protect’ civilians who are being killed in Yemen in 2015?
I’m confused. Can anyone help me?
I’m confused about US policy towards anti-government protests in Ukraine which involve violence from ultra-nationalists.
In early 2014, there were violent protests against the democratically elected government of Viktor Yanukovich, protests in which ultra-nationalists played a prominent role. The US and its allies told the Ukrainian government that it was not allowed to use force against protestors, even though some of them smashed into government buildings and threw Molotov cocktails at police.
“We unequivocally condemn the use of force against civilians by security forces and urge that those forces be withdrawn immediately,” said Secretary of State Kerry.
But last week, when there were fresh anti-government protests involving ultra-nationalists in Kiev which also involved violence, the US’s line was rather different. “Law enforcement agencies need to exercise restraint, but there’s an obligation on the protestors to behave in a peaceful manner”- a State Department spokesman said. Why was there criticism of violent ultra-nationalist protestors in August 2015, but not criticism of violent ultra-nationalist protestors in February 2014? And why was the Ukrainian government given a fierce warning in 2014, but not one this time?
I’m confused. Can anyone help me?
I’m also confused about the continuation of the sanctions war between the US and its allies and Russia. The OSCE report that things are calming down in eastern Ukraine.
Its Special Monitoring Mission report of 5th September said there were “few ceasefire violations in the Donetsk region and none in Lugansk.”
But despite this, the US and Britain are not talking about the easing of sanctions. On the contrary, there have been calls for sanctions to be extended. The economic damage of the sanctions war to EU economies has been put at $100 billion-with 2 million jobs at risk. Surely, seeing how things have calmed down in the Donbass region, and the damage that the sanctions war is doing to Europe, the sensible thing is for the sanctions to be eased or lifted altogether?
Or is there another agenda at work here, that has nothing to do with events in eastern Ukraine and which we’re not being told about?
I’m confused. Can anyone help me?
I’m confused about photographs of dead children and why some seem to affect the Western elites more than others. The photograph of poor little Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee washed up on the shore in Turkey, has been used to drum up support for bombing Syria.
Yet photographs of dead Palestinian children, killed in the Israeli offensive against Gaza last year, brought no such response. On the contrary, this week the Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting Britain and can expect to receive the red carpet treatment. Among the 539 killed by Israeli forces in Gaza were four children, aged between 9 and 11, who were killed while playing on the beach. Why did their deaths not lead to a political/media campaign for ‘action’ to be taken, as the death of Aylan Kurdi has?
The general public certainly cares: a petition calling for Netanyahu to be arrested for Israeli war crimes when he visits Britain received over 100,000 signatures, meaning that it has to be debated in Parliament. But government minister Eric Pickles dismissed the petition as ‘completely absurd’. Why is it ‘completely absurd’ to care about dead Palestinian children as well as dead Syrian ones?
I’m confused. Can anyone help me?
At least 10 people have been killed in a fresh wave of Saudi attacks on the Yemeni capital of Sana’a while nearly two dozen Indian fisherman were killed in air strikes in the west of the impoverished country.
The latest airstrikes on Tuesday targeted several areas in Sana’a, including a police academy and the security services headquarters.
Witnesses said many people were wounded during the attacks, most of them by flying glass when the blasts shattered windows.
An earlier attack hit several houses in the capital, including those of the senior members of the Houthi Ansarullah movement, leaving at least two children dead and three women injured.
Yemen’s Saba news agency, which is under the control of Ansarullah, put the death toll from the Tuesday attacks at 15, saying at least 77 were injured in the raids.
Elsewhere in western Yemen, at least five people were killed and 10 others injured when Saudi warplanes targeted trucks carrying fuel and foodstuff in the port city of Mukha in Ta’izz Province.
Reports said that nearly a dozen people were also killed and some 40 others injured in similar airstrikes on the southwestern province of Ibb.
Yemen’s al-Masirah TV said Saudi warplanes targeted a vessel carrying Indian fishermen off the coast of al-Khukhah in Yemen’s western province of Hudaydah, killing nearly 22 people onboard.
The attacks on Yemen, which are now well in their sixth month, have seen a dramatic rise since September 4, when Ansarullah forces and allies managed to kill dozens of troops fighting for the so-called Saudi-led coalition against Yemen.
Yemenis continued retaliatory attacks with the army and people’s committees firing a barrage of rockets at the Saudi border guard headquarters in Dhahran al-Janub.
A report by al-Masirah said Yemeni forces shelled the positions of Saudi forces inside the kingdom with the latest of them inflicting losses on a police command in the Khobah district of the southern province of Jizan.
Saudi Arabia started its brutal air campaign against Yemen on March 26 in a bid to block the advance of Ansarullah across Yemen and restore power to the fugitive former President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, a close ally of Riyadh.
According to Yemeni sources, more than five thousand people have been killed in the attacks over the past few months, while more than a million have been displaced.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s big plan to tackle the refugee crisis will only hurt migrants without addressing the root cause of the problem, which is the US’ destabilization of Middle Eastern nations, the opposition Left Party said.
Merkel’s coalition of Christian Democrats and Socialists hammered out a package of general measures to address the rising flow of migrants on Sunday night. Around 20,000 asylum seekers arrived in the country over the weekend, with a total of 800,000 expected in 2015.
In a position paper presented to the German parliament on Monday, the Left Party accused the United States and its NATO allies of destabilizing countries in the Middle East through interventions and regime changes.
Dietmar Bartsch, the deputy chairman of the left-wing faction in the parliament, said at Monday’s press conference he had “no sympathy” for regimes in the Middle East, but added Germany and its allies should avoid making “mistakes” that lead to people being displaced.
He pointed to wars in Syria and Iraq that created a vacuum of power and forced thousands of people to flee the encroaching Islamic State forces. Most recently, Germany has been providing weapons to Saudi Arabia, which is bombing rebel positions in Yemen.
“I can tell you that the next flow of refugees will come from Yemen. Today’s arms exports create tomorrow’s migrants,” Bartsch emphasized.
“Western countries led by the United States have destabilized entire regions by allowing the creation of terror organizations… Murderous gangs like the Islamic State (IS) have been backed indirectly and supplied with weapons and funds by countries allied with Germany,” the position paper said.
The Left Party’s domestic policies spokesperson, Ulla Jelpke, said Monday that the “[Merkel] coalition’s current package of measures piled together different points that will hurt refugees, rather than do them any good.”
She said the package created additional barriers for refugees fleeing conflicts in the Western Balkans “under the cover of refugee aid.”
The Left Party said it had formulated its own 10-point plan on tackling the root causes of the ongoing migrant crisis that included an end to arms exports, no more participation in NATO-led wars and removing US bases from German soil, as well as increasing Germany’s contribution to the World Food Program for Syria from 162 billion euro ($180 billion) to 500 billion ($558 billion).
Turbulence in the Middle East presents an obvious challenge for the Obama Administration, seeking to satisfy all major players in a series of convoluted games. Washington continues to supply weapons to “crucial ally” Saudi Arabia, where coalition airstrikes on Yemen kill innocent people and humanitarian aid is blocked from entry.
President Obama and Saudi King Salman met Friday in the Oval Office. The details of their chat remain undisclosed, though various sources earlier hinted arms supplies would be on the table for discussion.
Among possible candidates are Boeing’s GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, according to Bloomberg. Approved for use in the Royal Saudi Air Force’s F-15s back in 2008, it’s likely they have been used for the bombardment of Yemen this year, which has reportedly claimed the lives of dozens of civilians. There are also numerous reports of the use of internationally banned cluster munition in the airstrikes, which began in March.
Reuters reported Wednesday a deal had nearly been reached for two frigates worth over $1 billion to the Saudis by Lockheed Martin Corp. The US recently approved a possible $5.4 billion sale of advanced Patriot missiles to Riyadh, the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) said in a statement in July, the same month US defense contractor Raytheon was awarded a $180 million contract to provide Saudi Arabia with guided air-to-ground missiles.
Defense buildup in Saudi Arabia, which became the world’s top arms importer this year, has considerably benefited several American weapons manufacturers. And the US relies on defense contractors to fill the void created by Pentagon budget constraints, as former US Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb told Sputnik, adding that the Saudis have increased orders for US missile defense systems out of fear that Iran will grow stronger militarily after nuclear sanctions are lifted.
Ahead of today’s meeting with King Salman, Barack Obama announced they planned to discuss Iran, Syria, the self-proclaimed Islamic State terror group, the global economy and energy issues, among others.
“I look forward to continuing to deepen our cooperation on issues like education and clean energy and science and climate change because His Majesty is interested, obviously, ultimately in making sure that his people, particularly young people, have prosperity and opportunity into the future,” Obama said. “And we share those hopes and those dreams for those young people, and I look forward to hearing his ideas on how we can be helpful.”
No mention of any arms sales.
As western countries profit from the sales of advanced weapons systems to Riyadh — including American and British warships to maintain a blockade on humanitarian aid to Yemen — they turn a blind eye to what many call Saudi war crimes and the obvious violation of human rights under Saudi leadership at home.
“The entire affair is a blatant breach of international law, and an assault on authentic democracy and self-determination,” Canadian writer and activist Stephen Gowans noted earlier this month.
On Monday, Amnesty International accused the Saudi-led, US-backed coalition of using internationally banned weapons in Yemen in a report that also lambasted the US for supplying the coalition with intelligence and material support, and the disastrous consequences for local populations the war perpetrates.