ODFS Director addresses World Affairs Council of Western MassachusettsThursday, 14 April 2016
ODFS Director Ribal Al-Assad gave an address today to the Western Massachusetts World Affairs Council, during which he spoke about the crisis in Syria, the problem of Islamic extremism and the West's inadequate response to these issues. The full text of his speech, entitled "Syria, the Middle East and the New Cold War: How Three Tiers of Conflict Created an Apocalypse", can be found below:
Thank you and good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I'd like to thank the World Affairs Council for the kind invitation to speak to you at this important event, which I am of course delighted to attend.
I want to speak to you tonight about the current crisis in Syria, the Middle East, and indeed the rest of the world, since it has become increasingly clear that the conflicts in Syria and the region are having significant global repercussions. Afterwards, I look forward to hearing what I’m sure will be very insightful questions and then doing my best to answer them!
Before I begin, I want to say a few words about Islamism, which is a term you will hear a lot in the speech that follows.
Islamism is a political ideology that has corrupted and perverted the religion of Islam to suit its own vicious ends. So when Islamists claim to be acting in the name of Islam when they attack close to home, in cities like Boston, New York, or San Bernadino, or abroad, as in Paris and Brussels, you shouldn’t believe them. These people are not telling the truth.
The truth is that Islam is a religion of peace, based on mercy and forgiveness. I am Muslim, and I can tell you that my religion does not sanction the murder of innocents, or any of the other violence and oppression the Islamists themselves actually worship.
With that made clear, I want to move on to the topic of Syria, and explain how what began in that country as a government clampdown on a peaceful protest movement was transformed into a vicious proxy war between external powers pursuing their own interests and how this external interference has gradually drawn in global powers, including Russia and the United States.
For as you all know, in recent months Russia has become much more active in Syria, intervening directly to support the regime with 5,600 air strikes as of mid-January and an average of 100 missions per day since then. This is twice the number of sorties that have been flown by the US and its allies, which have mostly been in support of Kurdish fighters (who are actually allies of the Syrian regime).
Even though the coalition’s objectives are more limited than Russia’s, focused as they are on helping the Kurds to tackle the Islamic State, it’s clear that its efforts are not enough to be truly effective, especially when you compare them with the air campaigns carried out in Afghanistan and Iraq — which were some 40 times the intensity of the coalition’s current mission in Syria!
Until very recently, the US and Russia have taken directly opposing positions on the regime, with Russia committed to supporting it and the US committed to an opposition that, despite all hopes, is not moderate at all, and although lately we have seen some signs of cooperation between the two countries over the conflict in Syria tensions between them remain very high.
Indeed, it was only two months ago that Russian Prime Minister Medvedev warned at the Munich Security Conference that a “new world war” could break out if NATO ground troops were to enter Syria, a scenario which Turkey seems to have been doing its best to bring about. Its shooting down of a Russian jet last November, for example was clearly an attempt to drag NATO into the conflict.
It’s worth noting that since the day the Russian jet was downed, Turkish incursions of Greek airspace, which before that day had numbered over 2,000, were completely stopped.
But Turkey’s gambit to drag in NATO failed and actually just gave the Russians a convenient excuse to deploy to Syria their S-400 air-defence missile system, which is far more advanced than the S-300 system the West has long worried Russia would deliver to the Syrian regime.
This means that Russia has imposed a de facto no fly zone over Syria and now any country flying over Syria has to cooperate with the Russians. This is all in addition to Russia having state of the art tanks and artillery on the ground, not to mention a submarine and the cruiser Moskva in the Mediterranean.
But there is still a significant danger that the conflict will escalate into a more serious clash between Russia and the United States. I sincerely hope that this danger will be averted, however, and that instead the international community can come together to confront our common enemy, which, as I will make clear in this speech, is global Islamic extremism.
That will be the first step in bringing lasting peace to my country and the wider region, which is necessary for its people to begin their journey to true freedom and democracy.
But before I go on to talk about how the international community must respond today and
tomorrow to the crisis in Syria, and about how it affects our own national security, let me look back to yesterday and talk a little about how this tragic situation came about.
As you are aware, the present conflict began in 2011 with a series of protests against the
regime, which were widely interpreted in the context of the so-called Arab Spring.
And many Syrians were indeed crying out for democratic reform. These good people didn’t dream of igniting civil war when they took to the streets, but sadly their protests were hijacked by those who had a very different and much more sinister agenda. Democratic leaders on the ground were pushed to the side by radicals committed to sectarian war and the imposition of brutal sharia law — which is why, to this day, the overwhelming majority of so-called moderate opposition forces are in fact Islamic extremists.
These extremists, I should add, are the first to admit that they love death, and want nothing more than to kill and to die in the service of their twisted ideology. We need to remember that their ambitions are by no means limited to Syria, but their goal is to establish an Islamic Caliphate under sharia law which stretches from Xinjiang in China to Andalusia in Spain — everywhere, in fact, where they see themselves as a majority.
So how exactly was this movement for freedom and democracy hijacked by jihadists who have absolutely no respect for freedom, or human rights, or the democratic process?
The answer is that powerful regional players have intervened in the conflict and are now effectively fighting a proxy war on Syrian soil, using these jihadists as their pawns.
As I'm sure you all know, the major rivalry in the Middle East is between Iran on one side and the Gulf states and Turkey on the other. All of these states are shamefully complicit in the catastrophe that has engulfed Syria and the wider Middle East, having manipulated the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shia Muslims to further their own interests.
One reason for the involvement of the Gulf states is that they feared the democratic forces unleashed by the Arab Spring, with its calls for dignity and popular representation, and worried that similar uprisings could threaten their own autocratic and repressive regimes, through a kind of democratic domino effect.
Hence from the very beginning they made sure that extremist elements infiltrated the Syrian opposition and used jihadist television stations to foment sectarian war rather than genuine democratic change.
Another reason for their intervention is that the leaders of Turkey and the Gulf states all believed that by intervening in Syria they could bring down the regime in a matter of months, thereby isolating Iran and bringing its nuclear programme to a halt.
They also hoped to ensure that the new system would not be democratic and would be under their control so they began competing with each other in their support for radical Islamist groups inside Syria who they expected to do their bidding when the regime fell.
Clearly not everything has gone according to their plan!
Now that Iran has signed its nuclear deal with the US, it is, in some ways, a partner of the West rather than its implacable enemy, and with sanctions on the way to being lifted it is much better placed to further the strategy of expansion it has been pursuing since the invasion of Iraq (which, I should add, effectively handed Iran control of most of that country).Iran is also now able to help finance Russia's intervention in Syria, and better placed to deploy more of its own ground troops in the country.
Remember that Iran still has an alliance with Russia as well, which is about to supply it with the S-300 missile system, plus a cadre of Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jets and other advanced weaponry. Iran also recently announced that it had signed contracts with Russia worth a total of around 40 billion dollars for a variety of industrial and infrastructure projects.
And while some observers have speculated that Iran's intervention in Syria was about securing the nuclear programme, if anything, the reverse is true. Iran’s nuclear programme, like its intervention in Syria, is only a means to an end, namely the domination of the greater Middle East — from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean.
Ironically, the rise of Salafi extremism since the Arab Spring has only helped Iran, because minorities throughout the region have heard the hateful sectarian rhetoric coming from top clerics on satellite TV and other media owned by the Gulf states, and they have seen the wholesale slaughter of minority groups, whether Christians, Alawites, Kurds, Shias, Druze, Ismailis, Yazidis — not to mention the suffering of the peaceful majority of the Sunnis who reject the Islamists' ideology!
So it’s hardly a surprise that minorities across the entire region have begun turning to Iran in the hope of protection from the growing Islamist menace, which is of course a role the Iranians are only too happy to take up by sending arms, money and men to their proxies and allies.
I hope by now it’s clear that the unintended and self-defeating consequence of Turkey’s and the Gulf countries’ support for Islamist groups in Syria has ultimately been to aid Iran in its quest to dominate the greater Middle East.
But where was the democratic Western world when the seeds of this great mess were sown back in 2011?
Unfortunately, the West was badly disorganised, with policies for Syria that were uninformed and poorly focused.
In fact, then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with many other Western leaders,
recognised the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Syrian National Council, but it took Mrs Clinton 18 months to realise the Syrian National Council did not represent the Syrian people. By this time, of course, Islamist fighters were busy tearing Syria to pieces.
But this outcome was to be expected from an opposition dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose flag, we should remember, clearly states what the group stands for, with statements proclaiming that: “Allah is our objective; the Prophet is our leader; the Qu’ran is our law; Jihad is our way; and dying in the name of Allah is our greatest hope.”
But nothing was learned from this, because soon afterwards the Syrian National Coalition was formed in Qatar, where the so-called representatives of the Syrian people were once again hand-picked by regional powers, including the Salafi-Wahhabi elements that were added only to please the Saudis.
None of this was undertaken with genuine democracy and representation in mind, by the way, which raises the question as to how such an opposition really differs from the current regime.
In terms of opposition fighters on the ground, the US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the rebels early on in 2012 as “not a national movement,” deeply fractured, and infiltrated by al-Qaeda, and General Dempsey admitted that none of the rebel groups in Syria shared our interests.
In 2013, Secretary of Justice Eric Holder confirmed that the Free Syrian Army had imbibed the ideology of al-Qaeda, and General Lloyd Austin III pointed out that the conflict in Syria cannot be resolved militarily. He added the warning that ”left unchecked, the spread of violence and terrorist activity emanating from Syria could result in a long, drawn out conflict that extends from Beirut to Damascus to Baghdad to Yemen.”
But as late as September of that year, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, was still claiming at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee meeting that there was “no” al-Qaeda presence in Syria despite the fact that its presence had been established beyond all doubt.
Clearly, the West has not been on top of its game.
But unfortunately, the lessons that should have been learned have not been learned and it remains the case that Western policy in the Middle East is poorly focused and detached from reality on the ground.
Consider Libya, for instance, where according to US Army General David Rodriguez the Islamic State has doubled in size over the last year and a half.
Yemen is another depressing example. After years of fighting Al-Qaeda in Yemen, the United States’ efforts are being completely undermined because the Saudis are once again building up al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremist groups to use as proxies in their war against the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Because of the Saudis’ policies even Islamic State has been able to establish a foothold in the country.
And then of course there is Syria.
The Obama administration more or less admitted its failure last year when it announced a 500 million dollar programme to create a new moderate rebel force in Syria after concluding that its half-hearted efforts backing existing forces over the past 5 years have had practically no impact, and realising that even supposedly vetted fighters have ended up either running away or handing over their weapons to the likes of al-Nusra.
But just a few months later, the administration abandoned this programme too, with General Lloyd Austin telling a dumbstruck US Senate Committee that the number of fighters trained by the US who were actually capable of battling the Islamic State was only around “four or five”!
It’s clear that after so many years of allowing our supposed allies to promote sectarianism
and to incite hatred and killing of minorities and all those who do not share their perverted ideology, it is simply too late to create an all-inclusive national force from scratch …
So we shouldn't be surprised when groups such as D-30 and the Hazm Brigade surrender their US weapons and sign up to the Nusra Front. Neither should we criticise the Russians for bombing supposedly moderate rebels when again and again they have been proven to be Islamic extremists. Least of all should we supply these groups with anti-aircraft weapons, as US officials said on Tuesday they are planning to do!
Indeed, we in the West have managed things so badly in Syria that General Lord Dannatt, the former chief of the UK general staff, has recently suggested that we begin working with the regime because, in his words, “that is the least worst of several very unattractive options.”
And he is not alone in that assessment. The former UK Ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford, has also said that the West has to stop propping up the so-called moderate opposition, which he claims is “not moderate at all.”
But such advice has generally gone unheeded. Some senior US officials have even argued that the West should back Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda!
These people seem to believe that if al-Nusra can be persuaded to polish its image and rebrand itself to appear less viciously sectarian, then suddenly it will become a suitable ally for the democratic world!
So while even men as distinguished as General David Petraeus might suggest using the al-Nusra Front to fight Islamic State, with all due respect I must strongly disagree. Because, at the end of the day, this idea is not a sign of strategic thinking but simply of desperation.
Jabhat al-Nusra, we must remember, is a branch of al-Qaeda — and it was Al-Qaeda, not Islamic State, which was responsible for 9/11.
It was Al-Qaeda which was responsible for the 7/7 attacks in London.
And it was Al-Qaeda which was responsible for the Madrid train bombings, the Mumbai attacks and so many others.
Actually, one of the foremost advocates of providing the Syrian rebels with military support was Robert Ford, the former US ambassador to Syria and even he has admitted that the results of doing so have been disastrous.
Ford said in February last year that for too long the US had looked the other way while the groups they were backing in Syria worked alongside the Nusra Front. They did so because they naively believed al-Nusra’s backers in Turkey and Qatar, who said they were a home-grown anti-regime force, unlike Islamic State.
But as he now admits, “Nusra Front is just as dangerous, and yet they keep pretending they’re nice guys, they’re Syrians.”
Indeed, the whole idea that there are somehow “good Islamists” and “bad Islamists” or good terrorists and bad terrorists is a very dangerous one, as the terrible blowback from US support for Islamists during the Soviet-Afghan war really should have taught us.
Thankfully, however, the view that we should support violent Islamist fanatics committed to the West’s destruction remains a minority in the United States, but the same cannot be said of such a view in the Middle Eastern countries that we call allies.
Qatar, for example, has funded and armed Jabhat al Nusra for many years; it has long called for the West to recognise the group as moderate; it has promoted its leader on Al-Jazeera, allowing him to spread his hateful message — all despite its being listed as a terrorist organisation by the US.
So rather than thanking Qatar for acting as a mediator whenever al-Nusra takes hostages we should really listen to Sir Malcolm Rifkind, the former chair of the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, who was completely right to point out Qatar's role in promoting terrorism and to insist that the Qataris “must choose their friends or live with the consequences.”
As for Saudi Arabia: It is well-known that the country has long been a critical financial support base for global terrorist groups. WikiLeaks cables have revealed that individuals and institutions in Saudi Arabia have pumped millions of dollars into extremist groups from Europe to India to Indonesia. Hillary Clinton herself has even stated that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to terrorist groups worldwide.”
Likewise, the former Head of French Interior Intelligence, Yves Bonnet has accused both Qatar and Saudi Arabia of funding extremist Islamist networks in France. Bernard Squarcini, a previous Head of France's counter-espionage and counter-terrorism Intelligence agency, has pointed to Saudi Intelligence supporting extremist groups from Afghanistan to Lebanon and Syria to Egypt to Mali.
To put it simply, Saudi Arabia’s support for global terrorism is clear and undeniable.
But this is hardly surprising given the fact that the kingdom's own political culture is fundamentally Islamist. Actually, Islamic State and Saudi Arabia both follow the same vicious brand of Wahhabi Salafi Islam and prescribe almost identical punishments on a host of legal offences, including death by beheading, crucifixion, stoning and other barbaric practices.
Just a couple of months ago, in fact, during an interview with a Dubai TV channel a former imam at the Grand Mosque in Mecca justified the execution by beheading of American journalists and said that Islamic State militants “draw their ideas from what is written in our own books.”
Saudi religious figures also regularly incite hatred and violence against religious minorities across the Middle East. For example, the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who is the highest religious official in that country has called in the past for the burning of all Christian churches in the Arabian peninsula.
He has also welcomed a statement from the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Sheikh Yussef al-Qaradawi (who, by the way, just happens to live in Qatar), in which he called for all Sunnis to take up arms and kill the Shias and Alawites, whom he says are infidels deserving of death.
These are just a couple of the many outrageous statements for which he has never been disciplined by the Saudi government. Even more shamefully, no Western leaders have spoken out about this either.
In another incident, in October last year over 50 Saudi clerics published a statement commanding all Muslims to join the so-called jihad against the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran.
So you have to remember that while the Saudis may make noises about combating sectarianism and Islamic extremism, as with their announcement last December of a new Islamic anti-terror alliance made up solely of Sunni-led states, in reality, this is just a Saudi attempt to counterbalance Iran by inflaming sectarian divisions between Sunnis, Shias and minorities across the Middle East.
Thankfully, a few high profile figures in the West have begun to subject Saudi Arabia to some long overdue criticism.
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, for example, last December rebuked Saudi Arabia for funding radical preachers and mosques in Germany, rightly noting that many dangerous Islamists come from these communities. He made clear that it was not acceptable for the Saudis to continue spreading extremism.
In his words, “the time to look away is past.”
And in a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama attacked state-sanctioned Saudi misogyny and described how Islam in Indonesia, where the President spent some of his childhood, had become more intolerant and exclusive as a result of the fact that “the Saudis and other Gulf Arabs have funnelled money and large numbers of imams and teachers into the country to teach the fundamentalist version of Islam favoured by the Saudis.”
Mr. Goldberg also says that President Obama has “questioned, often harshly, the role that America’s Arab allies play in fomenting anti-American terrorism” and noted that the President “is clearly irritated that foreign policy orthodoxy compels him to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally.”
But while such statements are very true and very important, the question has to be asked:
Where are the consequences?
A recent European Parliament vote in favour of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia is an encouraging development, but this decision is non-binding and in any case it is not enough, because too many leaders in the West are prone to using strong words without matching these words with appropriate actions.
Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Turkey, which has recently received some 6 billion euros in aid and promises of visa-free access to Schengen in exchange for its cooperation on the burgeoning migrant crisis — which, I should add, is a crisis partly of Turkey’s own making given its meddling in Syria and its constant refusal to control its own borders.
Now, I mentioned earlier that Turkey has been involved in the crisis in Syria from the very beginning. The reason for this is that President Erdogan sees Syria as the natural starting point from which to extend Turkey’s influence south into the Middle East, cutting off Iran and cementing Turkey's own role as the champion of Sunni Muslims throughout the region in what is effectively an attempt to recreate the Ottoman Empire.
And, like the Gulf states, Turkey believes that jihadists and extremism are appropriate tools with which to achieve its foreign policy objectives.
Besides Turkey’s support for Islamist extremist groups such as Al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Shams and many others, there is strong evidence that Turkey has been actively collaborating with the Islamic State, particularly in terms of purchasing its smuggled oil.
This is not, as President Erdogan likes to pretend, an allegation manufactured by Russia. Much to the annoyance of Mr. Erdogan, even the leader of the opposition People’s Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas, has criticised Turkey’s dealings with Islamic State.
And just this January, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said that the Islamic State has “enjoyed Turkish money for oil for a very, very long time.”
This Turkish money has of course been crucial for Daesh and is what has helped it to grow to such monstrous proportions.
But Turkey’s links to foreign jihadists are not limited to the Middle East. Over the last five years, hordes of foreign volunteers have crossed from Turkey into Syria and Iraq to join the jihadists there, and according to Europol director Rob Wainwright, between 3,000 to 5,000 of these battle-hardened veterans have now returned to their home countries in the West, many hiding among the vast masses of refugees.
This is all thanks to Turkey’s deliberately lax border controls and its support for jihadists — a point President Obama publicly complained about last year when he said that “Turkish authorities recognise this is a problem but haven’t fully ramped up the capacity they need.”
Almost one year later, however, very little has changed.
In December, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said that Turkey still needed to do more to control its borders. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago it was revealed that King Abdullah of Jordan, who is an official ally of Turkey, recently told members of the US Congress that Turkey was sending Islamic extremists to Europe under the cover of refugees as a matter of policy!
And what does Turkey receive for this massive breach of trust and its continued refusal to cooperate with its allies?
Nothing more than a slap on the wrist from the US, apparently, and from the European Union, mountains of money and the promise of EU accession!
But as former UK shadow Home Secretary David Davis has explained, accepting Turkey into the EU would be a catastrophic mistake. When the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yussef al-Qaradawi talked a few years ago about Islam’s ‘peaceful conquest’ of the West the vehicle he had in mind was Turkey’s prospective EU membership.
But allowing Turkey into the EU would also be a moral failure.
The West should be disciplining Turkey, not rewarding it. Under President Erdogan, Turkey has become increasingly violent and unpredictable, with crackdowns on the press, the democratic opposition and freedom of speech; unrelenting persecution of the country’s Kurdish minority; constant attempts to drag NATO into the conflict in Syria; and, of course, the growth of Islamic radicalism.
All of this has contributed to the climate of insecurity and fear that now plagues Turkey, and is the reason why President Obama has come to see Erdogan as “an authoritarian whose policies have failed.”
But really, we shouldn’t be too surprised by any of this.
Erdogan began his political career as part of the Turkish Islamist movement; he has claimed in the past that democracy is just a train you board to get to your destination; and he was jailed on the charge of inciting religious hatred when he publicly recited an inflammatory poem, part of which I will now quote: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, the minarets are our bayonets, and the faithful are our soldiers.”
Erdogan will of course continue to try to sell himself as a moderate, but his recent criticism of a US House of Representatives Bill labelling the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation shows that this particular leopard will never change his spots.
Still, as I have warned many times, despite all of President Erdogan’s sympathy and tacit support for radical Islamists, nothing will prevent extremists from targeting Turkey if they believe the need arises. They have, in fact, done this now on several occasions, killing and wounding many hundreds of innocent Turks.
Any small step Erdogan takes to distance himself from them will invite violent retaliation. Besides, these people are committed to creating an Islamic Caliphate under sharia law, which is something an ostensibly secular, democratic Turkey allied to the West is anathema to.
Erdogan has put himself in this position by deciding to support the Islamists, provoking the Syrian regime to begin supporting the Syrian Kurds, whose proto-state in the north is a source of inspiration for the more than 20 million Kurds in Turkey (most of whom, it is important to note, are Alawite).
So you see, the Islamist threat is not just about what Islamic State and other Islamist extremist groups are doing in my country, as horrific as that is. It also about how jihadists are being deliberately used by our so-called allies to further what they believe to be their own interests, but which is a policy that actually leads a range of self-defeating outcomes.
Our allies, in short, have become serious liabilities. This is why we must urgently rethink our geopolitical alliances and priorities — an undertaking that is all the more important in light of the global consequences of the Syrian conflict.
But I'm afraid to say the Western strategy in this respect has been flawed from the beginning.
If the West had moved early on in the conflict to take a lead by fostering a genuine democratic opposition, by calling a conference for all democratic groups who would sign up to the ideals of equality regardless of religion, sect, ethnicity, gender and so on, they would by definition have automatically excluded Islamists from the very start since these sorts of people will always be hostile to such ideas.
If the West had done this, there might now have been democratic opposition forces worthy of the name. Instead, our so-called allies were allowed to take the initiative, as I have described, inciting sectarian hatred and calling for jihad, turning Syria into a slaughterhouse. And now we are stuck with the terrible results of all this.
One of these terrible consequences is the refugee crisis, which is a topic I want to briefly touch on.
According to the World Bank, since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, over 6.5 million of my fellow countrymen have been internally displaced and almost 4.4 million are registered refugees.
Most of these people are living in tents in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan with little food, no heaters or air conditioning or proper medical care, let alone education for their children. The UN estimates that almost 90 percent of these refugees are living in crushing poverty and have difficulty finding work permits. The UN has also reported that wealthy men from the Gulf states have used the camps as a source of underage brides.
In light of all this, it is hardly surprising that these families want to leave to find a better life.
If only the Gulf states had redirected the billions of dollars they have spent on weapons and propaganda for Islamic extremists towards supporting the refugees.
Because now, these same Islamist groups are taking advantage of the uncontrolled flow of people in order to send their fighters to Europe as the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Hans-Georg Maassen, pointed out just a couple of months ago. A number of the Paris attackers, in fact, were able to enter Europe undetected — the ringleader of the plot even boasted about it.
Just a few days ago the EU border agency Frontex announced that “irregular migratory flows could be used by terrorists to enter the EU.” US Immigration and Customs Enforcement has also confirmed that Islamic State has access to Syrian government printing machines and blank passports as well as biographical data and fingerprints of Syrian citizens, raising the prospect that the travel documents of many apparent refugees could actually be fake.
Given the huge number of refugees, it won’t be easy to screen people effectively, which is another reason why many EU governments want to talk to the Syrian regime because at least they have a better idea of who the refugees are and which ones could pose a threat.
The saddest thing is that it didn’t need to be like this.
These refugees have been languishing in camps for years without receiving the assistance they needed from the international community — and still not enough is being done for them.
Had the West acted early to help these desperate people, whose quest for freedom and dignity has left them homeless and destitute, then perhaps the migrant crisis would not have reached the enormous proportions it has today. We would also have shown the peaceful majority of Syrians that we are serious about giving them a better life.
As a matter of fact, it would have been cheaper for us to support Syrian refugees located in neighbouring countries The refugees would have certainly preferred to stay close to home, where they still have relatives, and to live in countries which share the same culture where they could still speak their own language and have the hope of returning home as soon as the conflict comes to an end.
But we cannot change the past. Our priority now must be to ensure the defeat of the Islamists and bring calm to Syria so that a peaceful transition to democracy and stability can begin, and the refugees can return home to help rebuild their country with the full aid and support of the international community.
It is here, I believe, that the US and Russia can and must work together — for the good of Syria, the region, and indeed these two countries themselves.
Because although I understand the arguments of those who describe Russia as the gravest threat to US national security and who are therefore wary of cooperating with President Putin, I respectfully differ. I agree instead with Michael Morell, the former Deputy Director of the CIA, who said that the single biggest threat to US national security at present comes from the jihadist groups now returning from Syria.
In terms of the bigger picture, it is indeed the case that Russia is becoming increasingly close to China and that the relations of both of these countries with the United States have significantly worsened, but this due to the fact both countries feel threatened by the West.
The two countries have been boosting cooperation in the military, financial and energy sectors, increasingly switching to settlements in yuan, which will reduce the influence of the dollar on the world financial and energy markets. Not too long ago the Chinese announced a Silk Road-style economic corridor linking China to Russia, Mongolia and a number of other countries. Indeed, China is now directly challenging the West’s policy of cutting off credit to Russia, by pledging to extend financial aid to Moscow.
Moreover, Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu announced last November that the two countries are intent on forming a “collective regional security system” and planning joint naval drills not only in the Pacific, but even in the Mediterranean.
Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan has spoken of the ever-closer military-to-military relations between the two countries including “high-level visits, joint exercises and professional communication.”
Many Russian military exercises seem to have been deliberately chosen to send a clear message to NATO and its members, with Russia’s ambassador to Denmark warning that if the Danes were to sign up to NATO’s missile defence programme, “Danish warships will be targets for Russia’s nuclear weapons”.
On the diplomatic front, China has backed Russia, with the Chinese ambassador to Belgium, Qu Xing, blaming the Ukraine crisis on a game being played by the Western powers and calling on them to take Russia’s security concerns more seriously. Given the planned quadrupling of US defence spending in Europe, those concerns do not seem to have been registered.
China is also very concerned about the United States’ so-called pivot to Asia, which will include moving 60 percent of the US navy’s assets to the region, as well as other developments such as the planned deployment of US missile defence systems in South Korea and plans to sail American warships in the waters between Vietnam and the Philippines. These actions fuel China’s fears that the US is practicing a policy of encirclement.
So we need to place the Syrian crisis within the framework of these issues, because this broader context help us to understand why China and Russia see how the Syrian conflict relates to politics in their own regions. It also helps us to understand how the Syrian conflict could become a more serious confrontation between the US and its allies on one side and Russia and China on the other.
This, in fact, is a concern that has already been raised by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov. Fortunately President Obama responded to Lavrov’s comments by insisting this would not be allowed to happen, telling a White House press conference, “That would be bad strategy on our part.”
He can say that again!
Indeed, as John Kerry said just a couple of weeks ago in Moscow, cooperating with Russia is in the “strategic interests of the United States.”
This is particularly true in terms of defeating the Islamic State, Al Nusra and other groups that share the same perverted ideology, because what matters is not so much the particular brand name of each group, but the vicious ideology that unites them. This poisonous ideology and the extremist organisations it spawns pose real and present dangers to the United States and are in fact threats we share in common with the Russians and the Chinese.
Indeed, Islamic extremists pose the greatest threat to world peace since the Nazis, because they do not have a single army to defeat, ambassadors to summon, or borders to invade and they are growing in numbers not only in the Middle East but in all the countries I have mentioned.
China, for example, faces a particular threat from Islamists in Xinjiang province as it is believed that hundreds if not thousands of Chinese citizens have been fighting in Syria and Iraq. As China’s special envoy for the Middle East, Wu Sike, has said, “when these fighters return home they will pose a severe challenge and security risk.”
Because of these concerns, Beijing has warned Turkey that if it continues to support these fighters, China will in turn support Kurdish rebels in Turkey. But I'm sure that everyone would prefer China to be involved in a coordinated international effort to defeat terrorism.
And there are a few reasons to be hopeful that international cooperation in Syria is bearing some fruit. For despite our regional allies’ constant attempts to sabotage such an outcome, Russia and the United States still managed to jointly draw up a cessation of hostilities in Syria a couple of months ago and this has led to a marked reduction of violence in the country.
And although Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria is largely symbolic, the move suggests that Russia wants to be seen as a responsible global actor that is capable of finding political solutions, such as a negotiated end to the Syrian conflict.
This would be in everyone’s interest. As former French defence minister Paul Quiles recently argued, the fall of the regime without an organised transition would lead to “a Libya-type situation the collapse of the state, chaos, then the destabilisation of Lebanon and doubtless Jordan too.” He also condemned nominal Western allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey for seemingly working towards that very outcome.
And it is true that peace in Syria will never be achieved if our regional allies continue to sabotage negotiations — which they are doing, as the continued exclusion of the Kurds and other genuinely democratic groups goes to show.
If the Western powers continue to exclude the Kurds from the talks at Geneva, which Russian Foreign Ministry rightly noted “has been done to please some of the regional players”, then they will be left with no choice but to create an independent state of their own. This will of course encourage the Kurds inside Turkey to want the same, further destabilising that country. And the Kurds have, in fact, recently declared their intent to have a federal system for the areas of northern Syria under their control!
Moreover, if peaceful groups with a stake in the country continue to be excluded on the grounds that they are not involved in the fighting then we are almost inviting them to pick up weapons and join the fray so they can actually get a seat at the table!
As I have said on many occasions, only a political, diplomatic and inclusive transition to democracy will allow Syria to achieve peace and remain free of instability and extremism.
This is not the direction in which things seem to be headed, however, because the talks at Geneva have largely become an arena for external powers to decide the fate of Syria.
But the job of the UN is not to do the bidding of these powers by picking and choosing who should join the talks in line with what Turkey or Saudi Arabia or Qatar want. The job of the UN is to create an inclusive environment in which all Syrians are represented and can have a say in mapping out their destiny.
We owe this to the Syrian people, and we cannot allow them to be left with the choice between dictatorship on the one hand and Islamist theocracy on the other.
That is not the path to peace.
This leads me back to an important point: as well as rooting out existing terrorists at home and abroad, we also need to tackle Islamism as an ideology. As the Pentagon’s Press Secretary, Rear Admiral John Kirby, has said, the “centre of gravity” of our enemies is their ideology, and so to ultimately defeat them we must destroy this ideology.
Now, in order to do this, we have to clamp down on the most dangerous channels of this hateful perversion of Islam on the internet, satellite TV stations and every other form of media through which vulnerable people can be recruited from their very own bedrooms.
Western countries can learn from the UK government in this regard, which not too long ago announced an exemplary new strategy to tackle the promotion of Islamism. This strategy includes banning radical preachers from posting material online and prevents anyone with convictions for extremist activity from working with children.
'Extremism disruption orders,’ as they are called, will stop individuals engaging in extremist behaviour, premises used to support extremism will be closed, and internet service providers will be forced do more to remove extremist material and identify those responsible for it.
As Prime Minister David Cameron says, "It's no good leaving this simply to the police or the intelligence services; it’s no good simply talking about violent extremism. We need to confront all extremism”.
This is, in fact, exactly what I have been saying for many years, but for too long my words seem to have fallen on deaf ears. As British foreign secretary Philip Hammond has admitted, the UK has been “too reluctant in the past to recognise the link between non-violent extremism and violent extremism.”
And the UK, like other Western countries, has also been too reluctant to confront its so-called allies about their role in promoting this extremism. We really do need to hold accountable and bring to just all those who fund, incite, and give shelter to terrorists and extremists, whoever and wherever they may be.
These individuals and groups pose a direct threat to our national security. As French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said just a few days ago, “these people are about to win the ideological war. They’re the ones the young generation listens to.”
So while it is all well and good to take measures to protect Western citizens from radicalisation, unless we go after the root source of radicalisation — which lies in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other exporters of extremism — there is little point to such actions.
On this note, I would like to point to some remarks made by US Vice-President Joe Biden during a talk to students at Harvard University in 2014.
Vice President Biden said that America’s allies in the region were, quote unquote, “our largest problem in Syria” and then went on to describe, just as I have here tonight, how the United States’ regional allies had effectively started what he termed a “proxy Sunni-Shia war” in their determination to bring down the Syrian regime, deliberately cultivating groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Nusra, Islamic State and others.
None of this was unknown to informed observers of the region. But still, it was subsequently alleged that the vice president had apologised for raising these issues in public. To me it seems totally unacceptable that the Vice President of the most powerful country in the world should be apologising for simply telling the truth!
This episode reveals the complete inadequacy of the West’s current policy towards its allies in the Middle East.
Rather than coddling them, we need to name and shame individuals and states who are responsible for promoting division and hatred, and we have to ensure that counter-extremism strategies like the one unveiled by the British government are rolled out not only throughout the West but more importantly throughout the Middle East.
That means insisting that our allies including Turkey and the Gulf states play their part in combating Islamism, rather than deliberately encouraging and spreading it.
Of course, we need to promote economic development and political freedom throughout the Islamic world and beyond so that young people there can face the future with hope instead of the despair and misery in which extremism thrives.
And that won’t happen overnight, but the Organisation for Democracy & Freedom in Syria is committed to helping this developmental process over the long term, as is the Iman Foundation, which I founded to promote dialogue, challenge extremism and bring positive change across the world. I believe that organisations like the World Affairs Councils of America also have a vital role to play in this process.
To conclude, I want to reiterate that the first step in bringing peace to my country and consequently greater security to the rest of the world is to recognise the severity of the crisis in Syria and its increasingly international character.
That, however, requires us to recognise the underlying problem of Islamic extremism, which is a problem we must resolve to address with the increased vigour and determination that the task truly deserves.
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