Friday, 25 November 2011

A British warning to Syria's opposition

The Daily Star
Friday November 25 2011
By Michael Glackin

On a dry, chilly Damascus night in late 2004, I shared a pot of sweet strong coffee with Abdullah Dardari, then Syrian deputy prime minister for economic affairs and the man charged with dragging the country’s moribund economy into the 21st century.

As he outlined his plans for opening up Syria to foreign investment, creating new jobs, and increasing prosperity, I pointed out that economic reform had a habit of being a catalyst for political reform, something that was unlikely to find favor with the ruling Baath Party.

Dardari smiled and assured me that political change was part of President Bashar Assad’s plan for Syria. His exact words were: “The understanding that there is a need for political and judicial reform is there. It’s not a taboo subject. I am not a Baath Party member, but if you look at what’s happening in the party today there is recognition of the need to develop the political system.”

Well that was then. In the event, Syrians got neither political nor economic reform. Dardari, the only reform-minded senior politician within the Syrian regime, was ousted in March when Assad sacked Mohammad Naji al-Otari’s Cabinet. Dardari’s removal came partly because Assad had grown tired of criticism within the Baath of his largely failed attempts to attract foreign investment – a pretty impossible task considering the Kafkaesque bureaucracy underpinning Assad rule. It came also because removing a well-known reformer sent a signal to Syrians that institutional changes of any sort that undermined Assad’s grip on power (Dardari’s tentative reforms increased unemployment, and with that anti-Assad sentiment) would not be part of Syria’s future.

Assad’s new government, unveiled in April, was a retreat to the bunker. Assad is increasingly isolated, with only Russia and China preventing global sanctions from being imposed on Syria, and just Yemen and Lebanon offering lukewarm Arab support. He has now dug in, surrounded by family and cronies. But the forces enveloping his regime – European and American sanctions, international disapproval, and unending street protests verging on civil war – look overwhelming.

It is the realization that the game finally looks over for Assad that is currently exercising the British government. Particularly against the backdrop of current events in Egypt, the United Kingdom is very worried about what will happen next in Syria.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s warning to Syria’s disparate opposition groups to “put aside their differences” was the diplomatic equivalent of a clip around the ear to squabbling children. Hague’s meeting this week with opposition representatives may have, in the words of the government, “intensified the U.K.’s engagement with the opposition.” In reality, it has given London a rude awakening about the caliber of Assad’s opponents.

In contrast to its approach to opponents of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime in Libya, Hague insisted the U.K. would not recognize the Syrian opposition while it remains so fractured and poorly coordinated. When you consider that the Libyan opposition was no paragon of unity, you get a good idea of how highly the British government rates the Syrian opposition.

The problem for the U.K. is, as Hague alluded to after his meetings with members of the Syrian National Council and the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCC), as well as individuals aligned with neither group, is that the Syrian opposition isn’t in any fit state to fill the vacuum if Assad is removed from power. Worse still, privately the government fears such a disunited opposition runs the risk of jeopardizing the goal of overthrowing Assad’s regime.

Unlike the Libyan opposition, which was based in eastern Libya, Syria’s opposition is spread across the Middle East, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom. The SNC includes the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Turkish military intervention to overthrow Assad. The Brotherhood has a very different vision of a post-Assad Syria than others in the SNC. The NCC still favors talks with the Assad regime. And the hastily formed Free Syrian Army, composed of army deserters whose leader has been given refuge in Turkey, wants to be recognized as the military wing of the opposition, something the SNC won’t countenance.

Meanwhile Syria’s Kurdish population is understandably wary about Turkey’s increasingly high-profile involvement in the current turmoil. Ankara’s denunciations of the Assad regime are growing more bellicose, and there is speculation that Turkey will send troops into Syria to create a buffer zone for those fleeing the continuing violence.

Kurdish groups have also held meetings with representatives of the British government and warned that any military intervention by Turkey is likely to result in Kurds taking up arms to oppose them. Whether Turkey, whose president, Abdullah Gul, visited London this week, wants to become involved in military action is a moot point. But Ankara’s criticism of Assad is getting close to fever pitch. Earlier this week Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan compared Assad to Adolph Hitler.

Any armed confrontation with Turkey could play into Assad’s hands. However, as the situation grows ever more violent, Arab states, most notably Saudi Arabia, fear that Syria’s continuing instability will spread across the region if decisive action is not taken soon.

It remains to be seen what the Arab League will decide to do after its suspension of Syria’s membership in the organization. The United Nations will not repeat its actions in Libya. Much as the United States, France and the U.K. – not to mention Saudi Arabia – would like a pro-Western Syria to act as a counterweight to Iran, the West has firmly ruled out military action or no-fly zones in a country of much greater global strategic importance and sensitivity than Libya.

As one British government insider succinctly put it: “There is a lot at stake here, but ultimately the opposition needs to get its act together, look beyond their own egos and aims, and consider the needs of the Syrian people.” Like Assad, it appears the West has no Plan B.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

The West can’t afford to lose in Libya

The Daily Star
Wednesday, August 10 2011
By Michael Glackin

“Of course, you mustn’t call them rebels anymore,” a minor but informed cog in the wheel of the British government told me the other day during a discussion about Libya. “These days we only use the term National Transitional Council – NTC for short. They are essentially the de facto government in waiting.”

I mention this only because, despite almost six months of bombing and bloodshed, insisting on calling the rebels the NTC appears to be the only new idea Her Majesty’s government has had in addressing the stalemated conflict in Libya.

Policy remains wedded to the maxim that it is “just a matter of time” before Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi crumbles and the NTC steps in to fill the vacuum. But in reality, all those six months of nightly airstrikes have achieved is to turn a halfhearted military action into a wholehearted farce. The Foreign Office is worryingly starting to sound like Iraq’s former information minister during the 2003 invasion, Mohammad Saeed al-Sahhaf (mocked as “Comical Ali”), who famously announced the U.S. military was on the verge of surrendering to Iraqi forces the day before coalition tanks rolled into Baghdad.

A Foreign Office spokesperson insisted to me last week that “the tide is moving inexorably against Gadhafi. Pressure is increasing on all sides, politically, economically and militarily. Militarily there is steady progress across the board. Reports suggest that morale amongst the regime’s forces is low. Economic sanctions are restricting Gadhafi’s ability to wage war on his own people. We will sustain our actions for as long as is necessary. Time is on our side, it is not on the side of Gadhafi.”

So just as Vladimir and Estragon waited hopelessly for Godot, in Samuel Becket’s absurdist play “Waiting for Godot,” British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Libyan rebels, sorry the NTC, wait, and wait, for Gadhafi’s fall. But as the days turn to weeks and the weeks turn to months, Gadhafi’s grip on power is as firm or tenuous as it was when the NATO airstrikes began, while the integrity of the rebel forces, and the West, is in tatters.

Cameron, Sarkozy and U.S. President Barack Obama have primarily relied on airstrikes in Libya to avoid Western military casualties on the ground. Instead of having the courage to take decisive action, they have adopted a strategy that has dragged the war out and led to the deaths of increasing numbers of civilians. These are the very people that the United Nations mandate for action in Libya was supposed to protect.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, the West’s lack of resolve in Libya has also emboldened Syrian President Bashar Assad to crush his political opposition. The Syrian dictator has been killing his countrymen without fear of reprisal from Western democracies, whose leaders look increasingly unsure of themselves on the global stage.

Right now there isn’t much left to bomb. That’s why, last week, NATO bombers destroyed three Libyan state TV transmitters and killed three reporters in order to, in the words of the British Defense Ministry, “disrupt the broadcast of Gadhafi’s murderous rhetoric, which has repeatedly sought to incite violence against fellow Libyans”.

There is speculation that a militant Islamist rebel militia, the Al-Nidaa brigade, which is linked to the still-unexplained murder of rebel army commander Abdel-Fattah Younis, had been receiving coded orders via state television. The bombing came as NTC fighters stormed an Al-Nidaa base in Benghazi days after the brigade freed more than 200 prisoners from jail in the city. Many of the prisoners are reportedly linked to militant Islamic groups.

Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, sat for a bizarre interview with The New York Times last week in which he claimed that an alliance now existed between the regime and Islamist cleric Ali Sallabi. This was subsequently dismissed by the Gadhafi regime itself, by the NTC and by the British government. But the fact that the regime had conducted talks with Sallabi, particularly in the wake of Younis’ death, suggests there are splits in the rebel camp, which run deeper than previously thought.

We now have a divided and possibly splintering rebel force, Gadhafi still ruling over half the country, and American and European attention focused on economic woes at home. Intervention lite has reduced the West to a laughingstock. One British government insider joked that the only way out of the stalemate was for Gadhafi to suffer a stroke, as there was “precious little left to bomb now.” Short of mortal illness or assassination, a negotiated settlement with the Libyan leader looks ever more likely.

Last month British Foreign Secretary William Hague and his French counterpart, Alain Juppe, signaled Gadhafi could even stay in Libya if he stood down now. Such an outcome is unlikely, but Seif al-Islam’s talks with Sallabi also appear to have touched on this issue, although Sallabi insists Gadhafi cannot remain in Libya. Increasingly, British officials are saying that what happens to the Libyan leader is up to the Libyan people, not the international community, even though Gadhafi was indicted by the International Criminal Court earlier this year.

You don’t have to be a hard-bitten realist to acknowledge that if you intervene in someone else’s civil war you should choose the side most likely to win, and then make sure that it does. Intervention in Libya remains the right thing, but war is all or nothing. And the longer this war goes on, the less likely are we to see any sort of political outcome that benefits Libya’s long-suffering people or the wider world.

Time may not be on Gadhafi’s side, but it is fast running out for the West as well. Gadhafi only has to survive. The West needs to finish what it started before its inaction totally discredits its leadership and values. Otherwise, the “Arab spring” will face a very bleak winter indeed.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of THE DAILY STAR.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Did Murdoch spur Cameron’s Afghan flip?

The Daily Star
Friday July 22 2011
By Michael Glackin

The conflagration engulfing Rupert Murdoch’s media empire has accounted for more high-profile scalps than Custer’s last stand at the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Last week Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of Murdoch’s British print business, quit just hours before she was arrested by the police over her role in the now notorious phone-hacking scandal. Andrew Coulson, a former senior British government adviser and close confidante of Prime Minister David Cameron, has also been arrested, and the scandal has even forced two of the United Kingdom’s most senior policemen to resign in disgrace.

Across the Atlantic, the head of Dow Jones & Company, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, which Murdoch acquired in 2007, has also resigned over the hacking scandal. The FBI is now investigating whether reporters working for Murdoch’s newspapers hacked the phones of victims of the 9/11 attacks. An increasing number of American politicians are calling for wider probes into his businesses.

It’s a postscript now to add that all this has resulted in the closure of the U.K.’s biggest selling newspaper, News of the World, the costly abandonment of a $12 billion bid by Murdoch to become the sole owner of the British satellite television station BSkyB, and a decidedly shaky performance by Murdoch himself (even before his wife beat off an attacker armed with a plate of shaving foam) before a House of Commons select committee on Tuesday investigating the scandal.

And this scandal, which began with the exposure of illegal practices by some journalists, has grown to lay bare police corruption and the dubious coziness between Murdoch’s newspapers, particularly The Sun and News of the World, and politicians and police.

Bookmakers are offering odds of 4-1 that Cameron will be forced to resign, down from 100-1 two weeks ago, as the scandal creeps closer to his door. Cameron is linked to this sordid affair via Coulson, who was editor of News of the World when its reporters hacked into the cell phone voice mails of royals, celebrities and, appallingly, murder victims and the families of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is ironic that Cameron was in Afghanistan when the scandal returned to dominate the British news agenda two weeks ago, for there exists a subtle link between Cameron, the Afghan war and Murdoch.

Prior to becoming prime minister, and unlike his predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Cameron was known to be lukewarm about the need to court the Murdoch empire. Cameron briefly worked in television before entering politics and believed that the power of the print press, whose readership is declining, was overrated when compared to television stations, whose audiences continue to expand.

More importantly, at the time Cameron was also lukewarm about pursuing the war in Afghanistan, at a moment when public opinion was rapidly turning against British participation in the conflict. But less than a year before the election that saw him become prime minister, Cameron suddenly struck a hawkish note on the war. The change in heart stemmed in large part from a realization among Cameron’s advisers that Labour could still win and, therefore, that the support of The Sun and News of the World was vital for a Cameron victory.

Murdoch has been a vocal supporter of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has argued that the Iraq war in particular might lead to lower oil prices, therefore to the betterment of Western economies. In 2007, in the run-up to the Australian election, Murdoch publicly warned against withdrawing Australia’s small force in Iraq, a policy supported by the country’s Labour Party, then in opposition. Murdoch, who insisted he knew “a bit about this,” said that such a withdrawal would “rupture” the coalition campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Cameron came on board in October 2009, just days after The Sun backed him to become prime minister. In an “exclusive” interview with the newspaper, he criticized the Labour government’s halfhearted commitment to the Afghan war, observing: “Our military is at war in Afghanistan but quite frankly Whitehall isn’t. If I’m prime minister, Whitehall will go to war from minute one, hour one, day one that I walk through the door of Downing Street if I am elected.” Despite declining public support for the Afghan conflict, Cameron also told The Sun that he would deploy more troops to ensure victory.

Downing Street insists today that “there is absolutely no linkage” between its policy in Afghanistan and Murdoch’s views. But part of the problem of the coziness between the Murdoch empire and politicians of all hues is that no one is entirely clear where his influence ends and government policy begins. A commitment from Cameron to vigorously pursue the Afghan war was perhaps not a top priority for Murdoch, but it could have been a sign that Cameron would toe the Murdoch line.

Realistically, the fallout from Murdoch’s woes won’t make any difference to British policy in Afghanistan. Both the United Kingdom and the United States are moving toward the exit. A Foreign Office official confirmed that the first phase of the transition process, which will see Afghan security forces take the lead on security operations in all provinces by 2014, starts this month. And Murdoch’s papers, having gone from “Backing our Boys” fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to “Hacking our Boys,” are unlikely to argue if the timetable is accelerated.

Despite his Afghan conversion, it’s unlikely that the Murdoch affair would have impacted on Cameron had he not hired Coulson. It’s his judgment in belatedly backing a war he cared little for in return for Murdoch’s approval that is more damning. Cameron’s decisions have trapped him in a vise of his own making. If he does become the highest profile victim of this scandal he really will only have himself to blame.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of The Daily Star

Friday, 3 June 2011

Britain exudes democratic hypocrisy

By Michael Glackin
The Daily Star
Friday June 3 2011

“We believe, not simply in the rights of nations, but the rights of citizens.” Thus spoke U.S. President Barack Obama during his speech before the British Parliament last month.

It was a wonderful address, articulating the United States’ and the United Kingdom’s democratic values which, Obama said, inspired the Arab Spring and encouraged a people that “longs to determine its own destiny.” It was also nonsense.

It was rather like what British Prime Minister David Cameron said following the fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In that speech he apologized for the U.K.’s role in supporting autocratic regimes in the Middle East and said that his government would in the future support “peaceful protest” and “freedom of speech” and “the rule of law.”

And here’s some more nonsense. Ask any British government official why the kind of military intervention under way in Libya is not equally justified in Yemen, Bahrain and Syria and the standard answer you will receive runs along the lines of, “We can’t solve every problem, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t solve this problem.” Some might also point to the logistical difficulties of a military intervention in the Gulf.

Really? Let’s pretend for a moment that politicians were honest about the reasons for not lifting a finger to prevent civilian deaths in Arab countries different than Libya. They would say, unequivocally, that while the U.K.’s strategic interests are well served by the fall of Moammar Gadhafi’s regime, those same interests are not served by the fall of regimes elsewhere in the Middle East or the Gulf.

Why? In Libya, it’s worth pointing out that the country was in a state of civil war before the West intervened, one where a sizeable chunk of territory was under the control of those opposed to Gadhafi. The U.K., France and the U.S. believed a limited military intervention would tilt the balance toward the rebels and rid the world of a despot, with little wider geopolitical upheavals. Their intervention was overdue and has not been entirely effective, yet it was commendable and right.

But in terms of the Gulf, what the West wants is stability, and if politicians are honest, they are not overly particular how that is achieved. Central to British policy at the moment – and that of the U.S. – is the degree to which the wave of political unrest across the region will work to the benefit of international bogeyman Iran.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has accused Iran of attempting to hijack the region’s democracy protests in a bid to “destabilize” America’s allies in the Gulf. Bahrain has also accused Hezbollah of involvement in the protests in Manama. And straight from its success in suppressing dissent at home, Iran is understood to have supplied Syria with crowd-control equipment and technical help in blocking and tracing Syrian protestors’ use of the Internet and mobile phones.

It is worth pointing out that Egypt’s transitional government has already extended an olive branch to Tehran, ending years of sour relations. It has also opened its border with Hamas-controlled Gaza. It’s hardly a dramatic realignment of the balance of Middle East power, but goes some way to explaining why the G-8 is offering the giant carrot of Western aid to Egypt and others, despite the fact that so far only two regimes have been toppled by the wave of unrest across the region.

It is against this backdrop that the U.K. chooses to ignore events in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen.

Yemen is a deeply unstable country that has battled separatists in the south and Shiite insurgents in the north. Even allowing for President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s interest in hyping up the threat, the country is increasingly recognized as an Al-Qaeda stronghold. Saleh has been viewed in the U.K. as a crucial ally in countering that threat. Last year the British government announced it was looking to “substantially increase” the amount of aid it gave to Saleh’s government to prevent Yemen from becoming a “second Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile Bahrain, host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is also America’s largest military base in the region and a crucial ally of Washington and London. If something akin to British and American democracy replaces the Al-Khalifa regime, it means that the government could be dominated by Shiites, which in turn raises the specter of increased Iranian influence in a critical strategic outpost of the U.S. military.

Moreover, if the opposition prevails in Bahrain, neighboring Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most important ally, would have to address the demands of its own Shiite population. Hence the only foreign military intervention in Bahrain has seen Saudi and other Gulf units arriving to help contain the protest movement.

Bashar Assad, though no friend of Washington, is seen as critical to regional stability and any hope of a peace deal with Israel, since Western governments resumed courting him three years ago and he made his peace with Saudi Arabia. The British government also fears that the collapse, or even the weakening, of the Assads might open up a regional can of worms and lead, among other things, to a resurgence of Kurdish nationalism, which could impact Iraq and Turkey.

Therefore, for all the rhetoric, and commendable action in Libya, there are defined limits to how far the U.K. and the West will go in supporting human rights, free speech and democracy.

The West saved Benghazi, but it should explain why bloodshed elsewhere is not, in political terms, worth getting in a fight over. Sadly, the best that those seeking human and political rights in other Arab countries can hope for is that the eventual toppling of Gadhafi will send a message to their leaders. It would be nice if Cameron and Obama would just admit this rather than indulging in empty rhetoric while those seeking the ideals they espouse are being eliminated.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Intervention lite isn't working in Libya

The Daily Star
Friday, April 8 2011
By Michael Glackin

Wanted: Accommodation for a soon-to-be-retired dictator. Will live in a tent, but must provide enough room for female bodyguards and occasional pop concerts by international superstars such as Beyonce and Mariah Carey.

Laugh if you will, but the idea of allowing Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to spend his dotage in exile is becoming increasingly attractive to the British government, amid the realization that, despite two weeks of coalition airstrikes, the war to oust him has now reached a stalemate. At last month’s London conference on Libya, British Foreign Secretary William Hague insisted that the government was “not engaged in looking for somewhere for [Gadhafi] to go”; but then he quickly added, “that doesn’t exclude others from doing so.”

Unfortunately, a week remains a long time in politics and the failure of the West’s military operation, at least in its current form, to topple Gadhafi appears to have emboldened the Libyan leader. Last month Mohammad Ismail, a confidante of Gadhafi’s son Seif al-Islam, offered the West a way out by proposing Seif as leader while his father headed to his Elba in either the Libyan desert or Sudan. But this week, Abdelati Laabidi, Gadhafi’s deputy foreign minister, was busy touting the idea that Gadhafi himself should lead Libya’s transition to democracy, in return for a cease-fire.

All this comes at the same time as it has emerged that NATO’s bombing campaign is running short of aircraft, following America’s withdrawal of its fighter planes earlier this week. So as Libya settles into a de facto division between the rebel-held east and Gadhafi-held west, what else is the coalition doing to secure Gadhafi’s removal?

Talk at the London conference of arming rebels is a non-starter. It is being raised as a feeble alternative to deploying coalition troops, something the United Kingdom and the United States in particular are desperate to avoid. First, it is doubtful that the largely untrained rebels could operate the sophisticated weaponry they require to take on Gadhafi’s military might; and second, fears persist, particularly in Washington, that such weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

Indeed both the U.K. and the U.S. have now dispatched teams of diplomats to Benghazi in a bid to “better understand” who the rebels are, amid fears that many are allied to Al-Qaeda. The Foreign Office remains tight-lipped. But insiders say the primary focus of the British government now is to prevent Gadhafi from regaining control of any more of Libya by continuing the airstrikes, while at the same time encouraging members of the regime to abandon their leader.

This brings us neatly to the many conspiracy theories surrounding the arrival in the U.K. of Libya’s former foreign minister, Moussa Koussa. Initially some believed he had brought a secret message from Gadhafi, hard on the heels of Ismail’s secret visit. Another interpretation was that he believed the regime is doomed and that facing British justice would be preferable to facing rebel justice.

Because the West is so urgently trying to engineer an end to the war that allows them to avoid dispatching soldiers, not surprisingly there is little talk from the government of Gadhafi being hauled in front of the International Court of Justice, as this might hinder a negotiated outcome. Although the government insists that Koussa was not offered immunity from prosecution, it is hardly likely that a man with his background would have headed to the U.K. if he expected to pay for his past misdeeds. It is worth noting that Washington quietly removed Koussa Monday from its list of Libyan officials subjected to financial sanctions. Moreover, if the threat of legal proceedings in the West was left hanging over Koussa, it would hardly help the British policy of encouraging other regime figures to abandon Gadhafi.

Indeed speaking before Parliament earlier this week, Hague stated that those Libyans who deserted Gadhafi and came to the U.K. would be “treated with respect.” And despite the fact that Koussa spent two decades running Libya’s foreign intelligence service, the government has been careful to downplay claims that he was a key figure in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie in 1988.

That said, Koussa may well face a court case brought by victims of Irish Republican Army bombings in the U.K., in which Libyan-supplied Semtex explosives were used. Court documents filed in the U.S. three years ago claim that Koussa oversaw the supply of Semtex to the IRA during its bombing campaign in the U.K. during the 1980s and 1990s. Lawyers representing the victims may well seek an arrest warrant for the Libyan, similar to the warrant that British magistrates issued for the former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, and which forced her to cancel a trip to London in 2009.

Will Gadhafi, Koussa, and other Libyan officials eventually end up in court? Or will Gadhafi head off into the sunset to enjoy a happy exile with his family and friends? The multitude of possible outcomes stems from the coalition’s reluctance to follow through on the logic of its decision to remove Gadhafi from power. Intervention lite is not working. It is time for the West to show that it has the courage of its convictions by ending this war and Gadhafi’s tyranny.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Britain plans for regime change in Libya

The Daily Star
Friday, March 25 2011
By Michael Glackin

After a series of embarrassing fumbles, the British government appears to have finally come to grips with how to deal with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. Or has it?

When it comes to Libya, Prime Minister David Cameron has been guilty of more flip flops than an Olympic gymnast. Still, his role in the United Nations’ decision to protect innocent civilians should be welcomed. Unfortunately, while the West sat on its hands for a month, Gadhafi launched a vicious rearguard action against the myriad forces opposed to his regime, leaving thousands dead and allowing him reassert control over the west of the country.

The problem now that the West has finally taken action is to determine what happens next. A Foreign Office official told me that the British government’s objective in opposing Gadhafi is to ensure that there is “a unified Libya under a central government that is more open and democratic, not run by Gadhafi, which does not pose external threats either in the region or more broadly.”

This is a huge change from Cameron’s earlier statements – not to mention the United Nation mandate which does not mention regime change. Increasingly, the statements from the government are starting to resemble former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s ever shifting objectives in Iraq. The Foreign Office official declined to explain how Gadhafi would be deposed, but British policy, and with it that of French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the United States President Barack Obama, still appears to be tied in to three doubtful outcomes.

First, the hope that coalition air attacks on Gadhafi’s military machine, which have successfully grounded Libya’s air force and destroyed its air defenses, will push the Libyan leader’s armed forces to desert him to the extent that his regime implodes.

Second, and much more unlikely, is the hope the bombing has done enough damage to enable the rebels in the east to mount their own counterattack against Gadhafi’s forces. Unfortunately the rebels holed up in Benghazi are a ragtag bunch and extremely unlikely to topple the regime on their own. According to defense analyst Anthony Cordesman, from the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, the rebels are “divided, lack discipline and structure and are both poorly supplied and untrained in using advanced weapons.” It is unlikely that the West will send these people arms and the American-European coalition does not want to be transformed into the aerial arm of the rebellion.

The third outcome is what politicians like to call “decapitating” the regime, or more simply killing Gadhafi. The United Kingdom’s chief of the defense staff, Sir David Richards, was slapped down by the government for insisting that assassination was not an option after coalition planes dropped a bomb on Gadhafi’s private compound last weekend, in what looked like an obvious attempt to kill him.

All three options are weak platforms to support the view that military action will be short and accelerate Gadhafi’s demise. In fact, far from Gadhafi’s regime collapsing, it is actually the coalition that is now showing distinct signs of breaking apart.

Partly, that’s because several key questions remain unanswered. It is unclear who would take over were Gadhafi to be overthrown or killed. Readers of American diplomatic cables leaked by WikiLeaks will also be aware of concerns within the U.S. government that eastern Libya is a hotbed of Islamic extremism. Any new Libyan government is likely to require a good deal of support from the West, and it is against this backdrop that many in the U.K. are firmly opposed to the current intervention, and to further involvement in Libya.

Media reports that firing a single U.K. Tomahawk missile costs around $1.4 million, at a time when Gulf Arab countries are filling their coffers on the back of sky-high oil prices, sits equally badly with many in the British public. That is particularly the case when at least three of the Gulf states – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Yemen (not to mention Syria) – are using force to crush pro-democracy movements.

Hardly helping matters is that Washington has been looking for the Libyan exit since the first coalition airplane took off. Barack Obama’s interest in foreign affairs seems limited to finding destinations for state visits with his photogenic wife. This poses a problem for Sarkozy and Cameron. Despite France being the first in the air last week, around half of the missions currently being conducted over Libya are being carried out by American pilots and, so far, all combat operations have taken place under American command.

Moreover, while Sarkozy and Cameron are united in support of military action, the European Union is not. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, the hapless Baroness Ashton, sided with Germany in opposing the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya. Then there’s the unconcealed opposition of key NATO member Turkey to both the no-fly zone and to any further military action.

As things currently stand, it seems inevitable that the coalition will have to put boots on the ground at some point. The promise implicit in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 that there will be “no occupation force” does not necessarily rule out a temporary deployment of troops. Whether this is done through the dispatching of Arab troops remains to be seen. Bearing in mind that Qatar is the only Arab state that has committed any active military support to the current operation – four warplanes – it is more likely that the West will have to act alone, raising the specter of the bloody occupation of Iraq.

The coalition has saved Benghazi, but if Gadhafi survives this will create a stalemate, as it did in Iraq after 1991. At the time, Saddam Hussein’s regime survived while Iraqis continued to suffer. To believe that “intervention lite,” in the shape of a no-fly zone, can successfully safeguard Libyan civilians ignores recent history and Resolution 1973 itself. Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy have encouraged Libyans to stand up against Gadhafi’s repression and it would immoral to leave him in place to harm his people as the west abandoned Shiite rebels to their fate in Iraq. Anything less than Gadhafi’s departure prolongs the agony of those whom the coalition insists it is protecting.

Rarely has the West more clearly exposed itself to charges of hypocrisy in its policy and dealings in the Arab world than in its cozying up to Gadhafi in recent years. But now, it has no other option than to see what it has started through to its logical conclusion.
Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut based newspaper The Daily Star.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The U.K. vacillates on Mubarak money

The Daily Star
Tuesday, March 1 2011
By Michael Glackin

Fresh from savoring post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt first hand, the British prime minister, David Cameron, offered the Arab world a mea culpa for what he called the United Kingdom’s “double standards” in supporting autocratic governments in the region.

Cameron lamented that past governments “faced a false choice” between British interests and values. The U.K.’s interests, he said, will now lie in “upholding our values, in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the Internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law.”

Unfortunately, while the prime minister was impersonating a statesman, he was also busy being a salesman. He touted the virtues of British defense companies – whose executives accompanied him across the Middle East – even as equipment and arms sold to Moammar Gadhafi by the U.K. were being used to murder peaceful protesters attempting to assemble freely in Libya.

So it was probably just as well that Cameron inserted a few of his own double standards into his speech. For while stressing democratic values, he also insisted that he respected the right of leaders to manage reform at their own pace.

This double standard is essential. For the following day Cameron was in Qatar – a country with no political parties and where the last election was held more than 40 years ago – presiding over the signing of a $3 billion gas supply deal between Qatar and the British group Centrica. The Qataris also sounded Cameron out about the possibility of investing in government-owned British banks.

What passes for Qatar’s political system is a long way short of what Cameron is enthusiastically calling for in Egypt. Qatar is not Libya of course, but then again neither, despite its many appalling aspects, was Mubarak’s Egypt. The simple difference is that the Qatari royal family’s relatively benign autocracy retains a much firmer grip on power than Mubarak could manage after 30 years. The great 19th-century statesman Lord Palmerston famously said that Britain has no permanent allies, only permanent interests. That remains the hallmark of Cameron’s policy. Values are measured in hard cash.

In fact every aspect of the British government’s current reaction to events in the Middle East is riddled with double standards. Take the cash piles dotted around the globe by the Mubarak family and the Gadhafi government. Witness the speed with which the U.K. and the European Union reached agreement to freeze the assets of ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali and his cronies. France has confirmed receiving an Egyptian request for similar action against Mubarak family assets. The U.K. has also received an Egyptian request, but will not  confirm which assets Cairo wants frozen. It matters little since neither Paris nor London has acted on the requests, even though the Washington-based Global Financial Integrity estimates that around $57 billion in illicit assets left Egypt between 2000 and 2008.

Bizarrely, Switzerland, banker to many a despot in the past, moved with commendable speed to freeze the assets of President Hosni Mubarak, his family, and his former ministers. The Swiss will now assess whether the money came from illicit activity.

Mubarak has close ties to London’s financial community through his son Gamal. Gamal owns half of Cyprus-based Bullion Company, which owns London-based investment fund Medinvest Associates, which Gamal helped set up in 1996 before leaving in 2001. Medinvest, Egypt’s first private equity fund, invested in Egyptian companies and public-sector organizations during the large scale privatization of the Egyptian economy undertaken by Mubarak in the 1990s. Gamal also has an 18 percent stake in EFG Private Equity, a subsidiary of London listed Egyptian investment bank EFG-Hermes.

But rather than act unilaterally and freeze these assets as the Swiss have, the British government is keen to secure agreement with the European Union. Why? Insiders at the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office and Serious Organized Crime Agency, which investigate financial crime, say they have made inquiries and can act quickly if the go-ahead comes from the politicians. But for the U.K. to act alone requires proof of wrongdoing. Unlike Switzerland, the U.K. is not prepared to freeze first and ask questions later. In contrast, an EU decision to freeze the assets requires no such proof, merely agreement among European leaders.

Government officials insist that this is the speedy route. However, there may be another reason why the U.K. wants to pass the hot potato to the EU. Egypt has also asked that the assets of Ahmed Ezz, an Egyptian politician and owner of London-listed Ezz Steel, Egypt’s biggest steel company, be frozen. The main charge against Ezz, who insists he is innocent, is that he took control of a state-owned steel company illegally during the privatization program thanks to his links with Mubarak’s regime.

A similar charge could be leveled at some very rich Russians currently residing in London – the so-called oligarchs. Their fabulous wealth, speedily acquired and taken West during the chaotic privatization of Russia’s heavy industries during the country’s transition to a market economy, is largely attributable to connections to corrupt politicians. And it may explain why the U.K. is so reluctant to start freezing assets on that basis, when it is allowing billionaire Russians to enjoy the fruits of what many would argue are similarly ill-gotten gains. Far better to wait for the EU to act, allowing the U.K. to avoid setting what would be an awkward precedent.

Meanwhile, Libya’s cash is even easier to trace than Egypt’s. Moammar Gadhafi’s investment vehicle for Libya’s oil money, the Libyan Investment Authority, has stakes in commercial property across London. It is also the fifth largest shareholder in Pearson, which owns Penguin Books and publishes The Financial Times.

It seems bizarre to expect the U.K. to be capable of coordinating an international no-fly zone over Libya or sanctions on the country, or to take any action to stop the bloodshed, when it can’t even implement a standard financial transaction without passing the buck to the EU. Standards, even double standards, clearly aren’t what they used to be.