Category Archives: NATO

Why defeating ISIS in Mosul is only the beginning for Iraq

The operation to liberate the ISIS stronghold of Mosul is underway, and some encouraging progress has already been made. The Iraqi military and the Peshmerga have recaptured a string of villages, including Nawaran and Khalidiya, and coalition forces are closing in on the centre of Mosul, where an intricate tunnelling network and a moat of oil tankers await them.

If all goes well, the offensive will last just a couple of months. Daesh know that they are running out of time and options in Iraq after a succession of heavy defeats. Ramadi, Baquba and Fallujah were all lost this year to strengthened Iraqi Armed Forces and huge efforts have also been made to attack IS communication through social media.

But let us not get ahead of ourselves. The battle ahead is crucial both for the future of Iraq and in the war against international terrorism, but it isn’t going to be as simple as a few territorial gains. Contingency planning must be precise in order to prevent a local backlash and conflict being waged amongst the powers engaged in the pursuit of ISIS.

It is very interesting, for example, that President Erdogan of Turkey has spent quite a bit of time in recent weeks citing the national oath; an oath which demands the restoration of both Kirkuk and Mosul to Turkish rule. Erdogan told the International Law Congress in Istanbul that it was ‘impossible to remain outside the Mosul equation’, and that “a history lies for us. If the gentlemen desire so, let them read the Misak-i Milli (National Oath) and understand what the place means to us.” A map proposed by the 1920 Ottoman oath can be seen here, clearly including large sections of Iraq:

Back in 1926, Turkey and Britain (then the regional colonial power) signed the Ankara Pact, upon the advice of the League of Nations Council, which officially designated Mosul to the newly established state of Iraq. Recep Erdogan, a staunch political conservative who maintains strong domestic support, may well be developing an imperial strategy in Iraq based on his country’s historical political aspirations.

It isn’t as crazy as it may seem. Strategic and territorial Turkish-Iraqi disputes are decades old. Take the case of Bashiqa, a town located 10 miles north of Mosul. Despite strong opposition from Iraq’s government, Turkey maintains a hefty military presence at its base there, and seems more than willing to use its troops to influence the campaign to rid northern Iraq of ISIS.

One side battle, therefore, is how to prevent almost inevitable military conflict brewing between Iraq and an ambitious state of Turkey. The BBC reported just two days ago that “US Secretary of Defence Ash Carter made the point explicitly at the end of last week when, on a visit to Baghdad, he reaffirmed “the vital importance of every country operating with full respect for Iraqi sovereignty”. His words were quite obviously directed at Erdogan. (One has to wonder what the implications for Turkey’s NATO membership would be if territorial goals in Iraq were pursued with vigour over the coming months)

Another battle is more subtle and less likely to be accurately reported on after the offensive is over. Gaining the support of the local population (an objective made harder to achieve by the strategic interests of competing regional powers) is crucial to Mosul’s long-term stability. Patrick Cockburn, one of Britain’s best foreign correspondents, wrote in his book The Rise of Islamic State that ‘the fall of Mosul was the result of a popular uprising as well as military assault. The Iraqi army was detested as a foreign occupying force of Shia soldiers, regarded in Mosul as creatures of an Iranian puppet regime led by Maliki’ (then the shia Prime Minister of Iraq).

Mosul, once a content city of two million Sunni Muslims (more recent population figures are rather difficult to obtain), objected fiercely to being defended by soldiers it regarded as alien. This civil dispute became a handy smokescreen and weakness for ISIS to exploit in the original battle for Mosul in June 2014. Local residents, however wary they were of the Islamic State’s intentions for the city, accepted that as a branch of Sunni Islam they represented the lesser of two evils.

Two years on, though, and it would seem that this is no longer true. The sheer barbarism of ISIS’ regime (recent chemical attacks, the mass execution of citizens and their use as human shields acting as depressing proof of this) has left thousands desperate for liberation. But will Iraqi Armed Forces, directed by the Shia Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, be able to regain the support of the locals who helped to drive them out two years ago? Will civilians in Mosul instead look to Turkey for solace after several years of disenchantment?

Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, revealed recently that his country’s plan was to create a safe haven for refugees in northern Iraq; a move that will certainly heighten Prime Minister Abadi’s sensitivities. Prime Minister Yildirim of Turkey suggested that a haven was necessary in order to protect citizens against what a called ‘a common threat’; namely, the PKK, but it would seem more likely that the policy is designed to grab a piece of the Iraqi pie and maximise influence in an oil-rich and strategically crucial part of the Middle East.

So defeating ISIS in Mosul may well be the easy part. Coordinating the removal of forces and winning over the local population whilst preserving Iraqi sovereignty in Mosul, on the other hand, could be the real battle ahead.

Reflecting on Owen Smith’s ISIS comments

Owen Smith is quickly proving only one thing: he is not up to the top job in Britain. Nor is he making a particularly persuasive case for why he should be the man to lead Labour into the 2020 General Election. I have decided not to write in any great length about his desire to ignore June’s referendum result, focus on equality of outcome rather than equality of opportunity or his alternative Labour manifesto (that may as well be a carbon copy of Mr Corbyn’s). If I believed him to have any real chance of becoming the next leader of the Labour Party, I might divert more of my attention towards him.

I do, however, want to pick up on his ludicrous comments this week concerning Islamic State that have topped off a truly torrid few weeks of campaigning. Appearing alongside Jeremy Corbyn on Victoria Derbyshire, Mr Smith said: “I worked on the Northern Ireland peace process for three years; I was part of the UK’s negotiating team that helped bring together the loyalist paramilitaries. My view is that, ultimately, all solutions to these international crises do come about through dialogue, so eventually if we are to try to solve this all of the actors do need to be involved. But at the moment ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating. At some point for us to resolve this, we will need to get people round the table.”

It is almost comical. As I read it, my sympathy for traditional Labour voters begins to strengthen. They were robbed of their identity by Anthony Blair as the century turned and this is what they are left with. Anybody who has ever accused Jeremy Corbyn of being unelectable may like to consider an Owen Smith premiership for just a moment. It is particularly bewildering to me that not more Labour members have noticed just how similar Mr Smith’s policies are to Jeremy Corbyn’s. To elect Owen Smith as Labour’s new leader would, in effect, mean swapping out an old-fashioned state socialist for a slightly younger state socialist with contempt for democracy and negotiating skills so impressive that even the mention of his name would be enough to de-radicalise an Islamic State fighter.

Naturally, Smith’s comments have been ridiculed by the wider public and political intelligentsia. There is no ‘getting ISIS round a table’ on offer in this conflict. But the absurdity of the suggestion is not what I wanted to get into on this blog. My interest in his comments spring from how debased our national debate is on the subject, and how soaked up many of us seem to get over the (in my view) greatly over-exaggerated threat presented by ISIS. Despite our eagerness to interfere in the running of other countries, I am constantly baffled by how easily events in the Middle East take centre stage in British political debate. Why are we so obsessed with interfering in the affairs of other parts of the world, and why do we afford a vile terror group so much publicity?

Britain undoubtedly played a role in creating the environment out of which ISIS grew. Bush and Blair’s Iraq invasion, sectarian in nature and devoid of any substantive long-term planning, laid the groundwork for brutality and division in a country that would otherwise have been happy to see the back of Saddam Hussein. In this context, I am forced to concede that Britain has links to ISIS and will, at least for the foreseeable future, remain a frontrunner in the campaign to ‘degrade and destroy ISIL’. It therefore goes without saying that a potential Prime Ministerial candidate suggesting that we sit round a table with Islamic State leaders and negotiate, with the hope of arriving at some kind of political settlement (what form would it take?), is a laughable exposing of our foreign policy incompetence in the matter.

Could you imagine Owen Smith standing up in front of a packed NATO summit and, in his thick northern accent, proclaiming to the rest of the alliance that the best way to tackle ISIS is to get round a table and to negotiate with them? He’d quickly be laughed out of the room. But this notion aside, I wonder if we have bothered to ask on whose authority we have been assigned with the responsibility of dealing with ISIL. It seems to me that every time we venture into the Middle East in some fashion (usually to satisfy the egos of our politicians) we manage to make things worse. Has anybody come up with a long-term strategy for life in the Levant once ISIS is gone? Or is that not for us to think about as long as our politicians are able to thump their chests on the world stage?

I mentioned earlier that I considered the ISIS threat to be a greatly exaggerated one. In fact, I would probably go further than this. I think ISIS is a minor irritation that looks set to be the architect of its own downfall. One day soon I may return to this blog with a piece entitled ‘Why the Islamic State was doomed to fail from the start’. It may be true to say that ISIL are the most successful terror group in human history, but that isn’t saying too much. The nature of the regime – barbaric, surrounded by enemies and over-reliant on particular mediums of propaganda and finance – meant that such a group were never going to thrive for a particularly long period of time. I dare say that we have entered the twilight period of the group’s existence. The sheer bravery of regional Kurdish fighters, combined military efforts from competing outside powers and the intransigence of the Assad government have ensured that much of the territory once marked by those infamous black flags has been returned to more moderate ownership.

In truth, ISIS have always been flattered by our incessant media coverage and spotlighting. Ordinary people do not think about them, even at railway stations or at airports (as we are supposed to) and our politicians like to appear busy in the war on terror by talking hard and over-promising. If nothing else, it is a breath of fresh air that Mr Smith has proposed a solution that differs somewhat from the usual proposals we here. Bombing campaigns aren’t quite as ludicrous on paper as the suggestion that a Labour leadership candidate can dilute extreme Islamic ideology, but they are certainly every bit as ineffective. Either way, the Labour Party would do well not to elect Owen Smith as its leader. If this is the kind of opposition that would meet Theresa May at the dispatch box, then Jeremy Corbyn may not seem so pacifistic and radical after all.

Actually, Brexit campaigners aren’t ‘Little Englanders’

Of all the the ridiculous names we eurosceptics (a misleading word; I’m not sceptic about anything) have been called leading up to this referendum, only one has really bothered me: the ‘Little Englanders’ jibe. 

In the minds of our critics, our views are old-fashioned, antiquated and do not belong. We are of another era, where women stayed at home and homosexuality was illegal. According to those with whom we disagree (on this, rather vital EU question), we wish to turn the clock back, isolate Britain and turn inwards – ignoring the rest of the world.

But nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather than turn our backs on global interconnection, we want to embrace it. Britain’s rapidly-expanding eurosceptic movement seeks an end to our EU-shackled failures and a more rigorous relationship with Asia, the Commonwealth and the Americas. We are ignoring countries with which we could enjoy very fruitful, mutual arrangements.

Thanks to the UK’s membership of the European Union, we are legally incapable of negotiating our own, bilateral or Free Trade agreements. For the world’s fifth largest economy to be restricted in such a way, as well as having no contributory seat at the World Trade Organisation seems to me to damage both Britain’s global influence and its economic prowess.

There is, however, an alternative.

By leaving the European Union, the British government regains control of its local supremacy. The word ‘influence’ has been thrown around quite a bit in the run up to our June referendum, without really meaning very much, but how can a country claim to have more influence in the world, if it seldom influences its own law-making?

Supporters of independence such as me see vast opportunities awaiting the United Kingdom post-EU membership. Let’s have the trade and cooperation necessary for a peaceful, stable Europe, but let us not forget our allies in Asia, such as Japan and India. By reclaiming control of national trade, which we don’t currently have, we can expand heavily upon our connections with the rest of the world, boost relations and maximise our role in international affairs.

The European Union, after all, doesn’t represent internationalism; it merely represents regionalism. As I wrote in the Huffington Post a few weeks ago, centralised decision-making inside the EU is beginning to sprout internal disputes and conflict between member states. This means that, thanks to the differing political interests of 28 EU members, it is becoming more and more of a battle for Britain to exert its internal influence.

But European Union operations aside, it is important to note that the UK works with other countries in over 100 multi-national institutions on issues such as foreign aid, military alignment and climate change. Britain plays a crucial role in organisations like the G7, Commonwealth and NATO, but what is intriguing in these instances is the absence of intrusive political union.

For countries to cooperate and trade with each other, political union is not necessary. Rather, it is quite rational to suggest that the United Kingdom would benefit from maintaining its existing international alliances, whilst controlling its own domestic affairs and determining its own place in the world – through trade and foreign policy. The idea that by revamping our relationship with our European neighbours, we ‘isolate’ (I never liked Nick Clegg) ourselves in the world is an absurd suggestion, and not one worthy of anybody who knows any history or politics.

You have to wonder how the world’s 167 self-governing nations get on without too much trouble.

But comparisons are beside the point. Britain is held back, both economically and geo-strategically, by EU membership. Did British people feel influential when their country was inadvertently dragged into the 2014 Ukraine mess? Do British people feel influential when unelected commissioners negotiate trade deals on their behalf, and often in secret?

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry noted recently that he’d like to see a ‘strong UK in a strong EU’. Never mind that the statement is clearly an oxymoron, I wonder how American citizens and officials would react if their borders and law were determined in Mexico City, and their international trade in Ottowa.

Despite ‘influence’ being difficult to measure in objective fashion, I firmly believe that Britain’s role in world politics is expanded and magnified by independence. Sovereignty is something good men and women fought for over many years, and when harnessed well, can really maximise the UK’s global leadership.

We are told that continued EU membership will assist us in combating terrorism, climate change and catching criminals. It is a shame that misguided attitudes towards global warming, Interpol and the EU’s now glaring role in promoting Islamic terrorism seriously negate these arguments.

Upon regaining self-governance, Britain must and can rekindle old relationships and reassert its place in the international order. The UK is a nuclear power, the world’s fifth largest economy, a major exporter and a touristic powerhouse. We CAN do this.

Why Richard Sakwa’s ‘Frontline Ukraine’ is a must-read


“Those who see Putin as the cause of the problem refuse to concede that he might also be a part of the solution” was perhaps my favourite line in Frontline Ukraine; an intelligent and beautifully-written summary of the Ukrainian crisis of 2013/14.

In 250 pages, Professor Richard Sakwa (lecturer at the University of Kent and probably Britain’s most interesting and articulate voice on European politics) managed to contextualise, rationalise and even simplify one of the most interesting and misrepresented conflicts of our time.

As noted in the title of the post, anybody interested in Russia, Crimea, Ukraine or foreign policy in general would benefit from reading this book. Such a well-researched and thoughtful account deserves the eyes of both the west and its misguided politicians.

Drawing on conveniently forgotten historical foundations, ruthlessly sourced statistical evidence and political meddling, sensible conclusions are arrived at relating to the causes, belligerents and development of the crisis. Yet more striking is Sakwa’s neutrality and ability to provide us with a healthily balanced and unbiased view of events which are often twisted through selective foreign media coverage.

What I found most startling about reading Frontline Ukraine was discovering the extent to which both Brussels and Washington managed, often with shocking subtlety, to significantly influence domestic Ukrainian affairs, laying the groundwork for a crisis I now know to have been an inevitable one.

Sakwa explains in rigorous and thought-provoking detail just how Russia came to annex the Crimean peninsula, how they can justify doing so, and why it was a mistake all along to externalise Ukraine’s internal demons, and frame the country’s problems as evidence of a new Cold War.

Rooted at the very core of the book is the rather accurate notion that the events of 2013 and 2014 can be explained by separating the Ukraine crisis and the Ukrainian crisis; one related to ethnic and culture divisions, the other characterised by political pointscoring and international intervention.

European Union and NATO expansion, driven by a desire to create a ‘Wider Europe’ based on western ideals and political institutions, played a huge role in the exacerbating of Ukraine’s problems. Fundamental too is the now glaring fact that through the tabling of the European Association Agreement in November 2013, the EU displayed astounding ignorance towards Russian economic interests, as well as the prominence of the existing Eurasian Customs Union.

Frontline Ukraine directly challenges the lazy argument that the European Union is a bastion of international peace and stability. It outlines crucially just how taken aback Russia was by the events of the Ukrainian revolution, and provides a powerfully contrasting case against the idea that the conflict can be frame in terms of Russian imperialism.

Furthermore, I was impressed by how acutely the inner workings of the Maidan revolution were documented. Vital distinctions were made between the two competing ideologies surrounding Ukrainian statehood; monist and pluralist. It was interesting to see just how deeply rooted social friction and tribalism were across Ukraine, and why internal sects must be diluted and managed responsibly if the country is to rebuild itself as a prosperous and productive nation.

Naive is the argument that Russia’s invasion of the Crimea is emblematic of a country seeking to re-establish the construct of the Soviet Union, and lazy too are those fronting it. For a thorough understanding of the political climate across Eurasia, Sakwa educates those reading by encompassing multiple perspectives of events throughout the book.

His summaries of American geopolitical objectives are sensible, his explanation of Russia’s annexation is rationally-argued and represents a refreshingly open-minded outlook, and his description of Ukraine’s more internal challenges (both in terms of its societal structure and its ethnic segmentation) make this book such a fascinating read.

Please do give it a go.



NATO has become exactly the belligerent it was designed to quell

We were told, throughout the twentieth century and immediately after its inception, that NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) was a shining example of what both internationalism and a western military alliance could achieve.

Acting as a buffer to the Soviet Union’s aggressive expansionism, the treaty was formalised in a bid to promote unity and cooperation across both the anglosphere and Soviet-neighbouring eastern European countries. It was said that with a proper, well-structured operation in place, Europe would be able to defend itself against any fervent military or diplomatic USSR expansion.

So in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed and disintegrated into separate territories, one would have been forgiven for thinking that NATO’s job was complete. The Cold War was over, industrial capitalism had prevailed and inhabitants of Soviet land could rejoice in the knowledge that their futures seemed bright once more.

Only NATO wasn’t dissolved. Instead, politicians across the northern hemisphere lobbied for exactly the kind of territorial and political expansionism that the pact had originally been created to counteract. The decision not to disband the North Atlantic Alliance post-1991 was, in my view, an act of extraordinary mistrust.

By 1992, there was absolutely no political purpose justifying NATO’s existence, nor any valid explanation on the part of any European government. But not only has the alliance not evaporated, it has expanded since the collapse of the Soviet Union. One does have to ask why such a decision was taken, and why the newly established Russian Federation was not entrusted with a peaceful chance to show how different it was to its communist predecessor.

Expansion itself isn’t the only puzzling thing about the North Atlantic Alliance. Some of its members too, seem a little out of place, almost randomly selected. Contributors like Britain, Portugal and Iceland have no historical conflict with either Russia or the USSR to which a sufficient precursor to accession can be set.

National alliances, crucial as they are in whichever form, seem to me to form more so out of fear than out of any substantive, factual political context in some instances. For this reason, I am glad that Britain has major politicians like Jeremy Corbyn standing up and questioning the legitimacy of British NATO membership, and indeed the objectives of the alliance.

Just last month, plans for more ballistic missile defences in eastern Europe (specifically, Bucharest in Romania) were formalised, in an action justified by NATO and which can be read about here:

The peculiar irony here, is that were such an action to take place north or south of the United States, either in Mexico or Canada, America would consider the move to be an infringement of and a threat to national security. As it is, the United States retains close relationships with her allies to the north and south, and so no such activity is necessary.

America and the European Union would do well to remember that Russia is, in many ways, an army with a country. It has highly contestable borders, many of which she shares with NATO allies, the Middle East and China. Do we ever, even for a second, stop and think about the insincerity of our actions surrounding Russia?

Sitting on an island much to the west of Europe, it is easy for British people to appreciate the safety of geographically well defined and non-militarised borders within which the country operates. For Russia, the situation is a little more bleak. Just as multiple American military bases surround Iran, Russian people and politicians constantly have to worry about the threat of invasion or aggression, unlike many of its western counterparts.

NATO, which has been the armed wing of the European Union and the USA for some time now, has been directly involved in the exacerbation of various political conflicts in recent years which do not concern either Russia or the Soviet Union, calling to question its ability to encourage peace and safety.

In particular, its intrusion in Yugoslavia at the end of the twentieth century, its unforgivable intervention in Afghanistan, commandeered once more by the US just after the September attacks, and its involvement in the bombing and destruction of Libya just four years ago, are only three examples of its more careless and nonsensical contribution to conflict on the world stage.

No wonder Russia have had enough of them.

And how could I write a little something about NATO, its aggression and its hypocrisy, without mentioning our allies Turkey (though the meaning of the world ‘ally’ may have to undergo some altering if this is true)?

Refusing to close all borders with the Islamic State in Syria, as well as some of the group’s sympathisers within Turkey allowing ISIS to smuggle oil throughout the region are just two of last year’s darkest blotches against the Turkish nation in world politics. Notice, also, that relatively little has been done, not even in the form of economic sanctions, to punish the Turks for their militarised occupation of Cyprus (EU territory, might I add) since 1974.

At this point, is there anything that NATO hasn’t done, encouraged or taken part in around the world that it was not originally established to prevent? It is no wonder Mr Putin labelled, for the first time ever, both the United States of America and NATO as ‘threats to Russia’ in his national security document a few days ago.

They told us back in 1949 that membership of NATO was necessary for not only the UK’s safety, but for its very survival. At the time, perhaps that was true, but in 2016 the picture tells a very different story. Jeremy Corbyn seems to understand: if the US won’t dissolve NATO, then it is in British interests to abandon it.