Reading between the lines on the latest Iraq/Syrian war and Australia’s involvement

Since my last post the terror threat level has risen to High with Queensland especially keen to amp up the security factor with the G20 and the state election coming up. Rubbish bins been welded shut in Brisbane’s busiest train stations and extra patrol dogs and signage (asking commuters to be vigilant and aware of their surroundings and to report any unusual activity) are not all they are doing to combat terrorism in QLD. Staff will check the toilets before each train arrives in the CBD, these extra measures are to remain in place indefinitely. It is likely that these security measures will be rolled out to other Brisbane landmarks and Government buildings.

These measures will be interesting to see how they get implemented logistically, practically and financially. Will they impede peaceful protests intended for the G20? Will Queenslander’s become alert or alarmed with a constant barrage of security measures reminding them of terror? Will the Federal Government follow suit?

Meanwhile over in Iraq it’s been reported that their National security advisor Falel al-Fayed, has briefed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on countering Islamic State (IS).

Mr Fayad “put Assad in the picture of the latest developments in Iraq and the efforts that the Iraqi government and people are making to combat the terrorists”, Syrian state news agency SANA said.

This is significant because the American Government and Western Governments believe Mr Assad is part of the problem and want him to leave power. Looking at the map of the Middle East, you can see it would be most prudent to have Syria on Iraq’s side. And in fact they have been alongside Iran and heavily Iran backed Lebanese group Hezbollah since the Syrian Civil war began in March 2011. IS now controls territory stretching from Iraq’s Diyala province to Syria’s Aleppo.

The Syrian Civil war’s origins can be traced back to their worst ever recorded drought in 2006-2011. It’s a country roughly the size of Spain with only a quarter of the land being arable and had a population of 23 million people at that time. Syria is the home of many religions including Christian, Alawite, Druze and Kurdish minorities, it’s majority is made up of Sunni’s (orthodox Muslims). Alawite’s like Mr Assad consider themselves the chosen people like Jewish people but Sunni’s see them as heretics. With the population and resource ratio already out of balance the drought devastated agriculture, farmer’s livelihoods and livestock affecting 1.3 million rural people. Hundreds of thousands of farmers abandoned their farms and fled to already bursting at the seam cities and towns, in search of non-existent jobs and food that was already scarce.       

The Middle East has long used subsidies as part of domestic economic policy, in particular bread and energy. Subsidised goods and services are offered as policy for political passivity. The availability of subsidised bread is a large part of their safety net. Rising food prices and a decision to cut fuel subsidies further increased pressure on food prices.The decision by Mr Assad’s Government to sell most of it’s wheat reserves, when prices were sky rocketing in 2005 further worsened the situation.

By November 2008 the senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help warning that Syria faced “social destruction”. The Syrian minister of agriculture had also “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’” His appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time,” according to a cable obtained by WikiLeaks.

Syria is very dependent on it’s oil (which is poor quality, sour and expensive to refine) and agricultural sectors and drought coupled with the Government’s bad decision to sell most of it’s emergency wheat reserves in 2005, meant the Government’s self-sufficiency policy had failed. It had to begin importing wheat for the first time in 40 years to keep feeding it’s people.

The civil unrest in Syria began on March 15th 2011, when a small group of angry, hungry former farmers protested against the Government’s failure to help them. The Government’s reaction was swift, violent and uncompromising leading to further rioting around the country that the military couldn’t quell. In the following months violence between protestors and security forces led to the militarisation of the civil conflict. Mr Assad’s opponents are reported to be moderate Syrian Sunni rebels but now consist of hundreds of disparate rebel extremist groups and Islamic militant organisations, that rely heavily on foreign fighters from all around the world. These groups are called brigades and some observers believe there are over 1,000 numbering some 100,000 fighters.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed Caliph of IS began sending Syrian and Iraqi IS members who were experienced in guerilla warfare across the border to Syria to set up an organisation in August 2011.

Sanctions on Syria actually began in 1979 when America classified it as a state sponsor of terrorism and most US aid was cut. When Mr Obama called for Mr Assad to resign in August 2011 further sanctions included were; all assets of the Syrian Government frozen, US citizens prohibited from doing business with the regime and banned imports of Syrian petroleum products. In 2013 US Secretary of State John Kerry, allowed a partial waiver of sanctions to allow the export of commodities and civilian technologies, including equipment for agriculture, infrastructure and oil production to rebel controlled areas.

In October 2011 China and Russia vetoed the European-drafted security council resolution condemning Syria. They didn’t want to further isolate Syria believing there was room for dialogue and diplomacy and thought the draft would only encourage divisions.

Middle East Governments responded with the Arab League suspending Syria’s membership and imposing economic sanctions in November 2011, unprecedented moves by the 22 nation bloc. Arab Governments including Gulf states such as Qatar and Jordan have been providing arms and money to moderate Syrian rebels. This has generated controversy that these actions have in fact contributed to the radicalisation of fighters and the rise of extremism.

The European Union (EU) placed similar sanctions to the US in November 2011, it also included travel bans, embargoes on equipment that might be used for “internal repression”, or communications surveillance, and restrictions on importing Syrian oil and exporting oil-production equipment. It eased restrictions in April 2013 allowing the import of ‘crude oil’ from Syrian opposition forces to help them boost their finances. In June 2013 large parts of the EU arms embargo in Syria were lifted to allow the supply of arms to rebel forces in Syria. In July 2013, Hezbollah was declared a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU. Hezbollah came about during the 15 year Lebanon civil war in the aftermath of Israel’s invasion and occupancy, it is heavily financed and supported by Iran, and an ally of Syria and is more powerful than the Lebanese army. Israel is still legally at war despite a ceasefire in 1974, with Syria after Israel occupied 1,200 sq km of Syrian territory known as ‘Golan Heights’ in 1967. In 1981, Israel proclaimed it had annexed the territory by moving 20,000 settlers there. This is not recognised by America or the states.

For our time line, on the 15th December 2011, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta officially declared the Iraq War over, with a flag lowering ceremony in Baghdad.

During the time of Mr Bashar al-Assad’s Government the interpretation of Islam had been undergoing profound change not just in Syria but in many other areas of the world. In particular affected by policies of foreigners were young men and women from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Chechnya, Chinese Turkestan (now Xinjiang) and Egypt. Millions of Sunni Muslims throughout Africa and Asia have found inspiration in Sayyid Qutb’s writings. He was the leading member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950’s and 1960’s and hanged in 1966 for plotting the assassination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. He is also known as an Egyptian author, educator, Islamic theorist and poet and the father of modern Islamist fundamentalism.

Qutb was the most influential advocate in modern times of jihad, or Islamic holy war, and the chief developer of doctrines that legitimise violent Muslim resistance to regimes that claim to be Muslim, but whose implementation of Islamic precepts is judged to be imperfect.        

Many began to feel disenfranchised with their Governments whether they were favourably Muslim aligned or not, they also found modern compromises to be Western based and religiously unjustified. Juxtaposition that with areas under non-Muslim rule like Chechnya feeling oppressed, Qutb’s denunciation of Westerner’s spirituality and crass materialism alongside discrimination in Christian lands and you get tens of thousands of young foreigners flocking to Syria to fight for what they see as a religious obligation known as fi sabili’llah. 

The Syrian war is not a fight between democracy and the regime, it has turned into an extremist religious war, based on misinformation in a hotbed of foreign invested interest, that has spiraled out of control with IS capitalising on the situation.

Over in Turkey there have been moves to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.

The Hadith is a collection of thousands of sayings reputed to come from the Prophet Muhammad.

Some messages ban women from travelling without their husband’s permission… But this isn’t a religious ban. It came about because it simply wasn’t safe for a woman to travel alone

Fr Felix Koerner, a Christian theologian who has observed the project, says some of the sayings – also known individually as “hadiths” – can be shown to have been invented hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, to serve the purposes of contemporary society.

“Unfortunately you can even justify through alleged hadiths, the Muslim – or pseudo-Muslim – practice of female genital mutilation,” he says.

Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, the head of Egypt’s Dar al-Ifta has called for Western media to stop calling IS extremists “Islamic State” militants but “Al-Qaeda Separatists in Iraq and Syria” (AQSIS) because the extremists are “far from the correct understanding of Islam.” He also has an online campaign that is tackling the extremist idealogy of Islam militants in Iraq and Syria and “to reflect that Muslims are against their practises.”

With the US plan of ‘training and equipping’ vetted Syrian rebels being sent to the US senate to be approved last week many Republicans and Democrats have expressed reservations about the ability to identify moderates in a country awash with rebel formations and shifting alliances.

Iran has criticised US efforts. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said he personally rejected an offer from Washington to engage in talks with Tehran over how to fight the group. He also said –

“They brought together 30, 40, 50 countries and couldn’t do a damn thing against Syria. It’s the same with Iraq. They don’t want to do anything serious. The actions taken against [IS] and what broke the back of [IS] was not the work of Americans. They know this well. [IS] knows this well. The people of Iraq know this well as well. They know that it was the work of the people of Iraq. It was the work of Iraq’s military. They learned how to fight [IS] and it will be them who attacks [IS].”

He continued, “America wants to find an excuse, so that what happened in Pakistan, that with an established government and a strong army — Pakistan’s army is a strong army — without permission enters Pakistan, bombs wherever it wants, wants to do this in Iraq and Syria. They should know [if they do] such a thing, the same problems that came about for them in the last 10 years in Iraq will come about again.”

France has firmly said that they will only carry out air strikes in Iraq only, it will send special forces to help direct and train armed forces and has already provided arms to Kurdish forces in the North. Saudi Arabia is expected to host training camps for Syrian opposition groups vetted by the US.
Australia is currently on board as a “humanitarian mission with military elements.” Take note of the language being used.  Interestingly one of the first things that the Abbott Government did was to cut foreign aid. Iraq’s was cut from $16.7m to $3.7m and after the last budget it was $0. In January this year the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) defended the cuts “Australia is phasing out development assistance to Iraq in response to Iraq’s growing capacity to finance its own development through increased revenues from oil production,” a spokesperson told New Matilda at the time.

Now it is estimated that we will be spending $500m a year to deploy up to 8 RAAF Super hornet combat aircraft, an early warning and control aircraft, and an aerial refuelling aircraft and a special operations task group of military advisers to assist Iraqi and other security forces fighting IS.

In May 2014 Russia and China joined forces again to veto the draft UN resolution calling for the Syrian crisis to be referred to the International criminal court.

The Syrian elections were held on the 3rd of June 2014, it was the first multi candidate election in decades. It was an election victory for Mr Assad however the EU and America have dismissed the election as illegitimate. The people have put their trust in Mr Assad to end the fighting and to stabilise the country. America and other Western countries providing arms and training to Syrian rebels with the rise of IS won’t provide this.

Although these elections were held in the midst of a civil war, and some margin of error may be plausible, nearly three-quarters of Syria’s population of eligible voters participated. The polling was overseen by international monitors and was uninterrupted by major incidents of violence. There is substantial photo and video evidence that show Syrians voting en masse, and the outcome clearly reflects public opinion.

The media focuses on the IS group’s brutality and not many have asked how it governs the territories that it now controls. We have to remember that IS considers itself Islamic state ‘building’ not just another terrorist group. So how did an underground terrorist group become the new global face of jihad? It’s not just the illicit funding, well trained soldiers and clever use of social media but social services and in one word, bread.

IS published a pamphlet promoting such social services as distribution of water, collection of charity funds, electricity installation and bread. The pamphlet highlight’s it’s efforts to “manage bakeries and mills to ensure equal access for all.” it also describes plans to plant and harvest wheat in coming years. It’s bread-distribution operation to starving Syrians in the midst of war and chaos is also winning hearts and minds. Food security is continuing to deteriorate with fields and farming assets destroyed and 2013-2014 wheat forecasts down 20% from last years harvest.

The threat that IS made after beheading Steven Sotloff is clear “We take this opportunity to warn those Governments who have entered this evil alliance with America against IS to back off and leave our people alone.”

In March 2004 the then Australian federal police chief, Mick Keelty said of the Madrid train bombings “If this turns out to be Islamic extremists responsible for this bombing in Spain, it’s more likely to be linked to the position that Spain and other allies took on issues such as Iraq.” His comments were criticised by Howard Government ministers at the time but his view was later backed up by testimony to Britain’s ongoing Chilcot inquiry into the 2003 invasion into Iraq.

The director general M15 from 2002-2007 Baroness Eliza Manningham-Buller told the inquiry that there were indications that Britain’s involvement in Iraq had “radicalised, for want of a better word, a whole generation of young, some British citizens” who “saw our involvement in Iraq, on top of our involvement in Afghanistan, as being an attack on Islam”.

“Although the media has suggested that in July 2005, the attacks on 7/7, that we were surprised these were British citizens, that is not the case because really there had been an increasing number of British-born individuals living and brought up in this country, some of them third-generation, who were attracted to the ideology of Osama bin Laden and saw the west’s activities in Iraq and Afghanistan as threatening their fellow religionists and the Muslim world; so it undoubtedly increased the threat,” Manningham-Buller told the inquiry in 2010.

Between 60 and 70 Australians are believed to have joined IS in Iraq and Syria out of an estimated 12,000 foreign fighters from 74 countries have gone to fight with rebels in Syria (60-70% from Middle Eastern countries and 20-25% from Western countries). Mr Obama is hosting a special sitting with the UN Security Council this Wednesday, focusing on the IS foreign fighter threat which Mr Abbott will be attending. He is to personally address the council and to vote in favour of a US-drafted resolution mandating a global crack down on foreign fighters. It is believed the resolution will invoke Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, which allows it to impose sanctions or authorise the use of force against nations that don’t abide by it. It will be interesting to see Iran, Russia and China’s response.

The biggest anti-terror raids in Australian history, in Sydney and Brisbane last week orchestrated by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), used preventative orders for the first time to detain people without charge. The orders can be used when there is an imminent threat of a terror attack and can last between 48 hours and 14 days. Interestingly it is the first time the orders have been used since being introduced after the 2005 London bombings. What’s also interesting is the timing after raising the terror threat level with nothing imminent on the horizon and several days later we have Australia’s biggest counter-terror operation taking place in Queensland (QLD) and New South Wales (NSW) in Sydney.

These raids were preceded by a Logan Islamic centre raid in QLD where Omar Succarieh, a 31-year-old Kuraby resident was arrested for allegedly providing funds to Jabhat al-Nusra an extremist group akin to IS, and planning to enter Syria to engage in hostile activity. Mr Succarieh is believed to be the brother of Ahmed Succarieh, who allegedly became Australia’s first suicide bomber in Syria last September. A second man was arrested, Agim Kruezi, and he was charged with preparing for insursions into a foreign state, recruiting persons to join incursions into a foreign state and possessing shortened firearms and explosives.

Jabhat al-Nusra believes the fight against the Syrian regime is supported by religious texts or hadith, and its fighters hope to fulfill ‘God’s wish’ for an ‘Islamic caliphate’.

The recent Sydney raids were carried out at dawn by more than 800 officers in north-west NSW with 25 search warrants where 15 people were detained, 2 people were charged and 9 were later released. One man, Omarjan Azari, 22, appeared in Sydney central court last Thursday afternoon to face charges of preparing to commit a terrorist act. There has been much conjecture but the alleged plot was to behead a random member of the public, somewhere like Martin Place and video it for IS’s media unit to release publicly. Mohammad Ali Baryalei, reportedly Australia’s most senior IS leader allegedly ordered Mr Azari to do it and the AFP intercepted the call. Mr Azari’s lawyer said the allegations against Azari were based on “one phone call”. The case was adjourned until November 13 and Mr Azari will remain in custody.

The hungry media were not just informed but invited to the raids with police helpfully providing video footage and photo stills to the media. One has to wonder at the genuineness of the cone of silence surrounding the likes of Border Security and Immigration and the broadcasting of national security efforts complete with night vision from a police helicoptor. The raid footage could be used as further evidence of Muslim oppression and further aid the IS recruitment of foreign fighters. There has been evidence of this in India, the US and globally where images of raids and people being rounded up are used to recruit more people to the cause and further alienate them.

It’s remniscient of AFP raids last year when Craig Thomson (former Labor minister) was arrested while Mr Abbott was speaking at the Press Club interrupting Mr Abbott’s otherwise dull speech. Seven plain clothed police, not five as was widely reported at the time, from NSW and Victoria arrested Mr Thomson at his electorate office for fraud charges. The only forewarning that he got was a Channel 7 crew setting up outside his office earlier that morning by the time police arrived there were estimates of up to 10 camera crews.

The previous largest counter-terrorism operation in Australia was Operation Pendennis in 2005 when 13 men were arrested over planned bomb attacks in Sydney and Melbourne.

With the ongoing Israel and Gaza war, it’s also worth wondering why the Abbott Government doesn’t have a problem with foreign fighters fighting with the Israel Defence Force (IDF). The IDF comprises of 4,600 foreign fighters known as “lone soldiers”. More than 1,500 are American, with at least 100 Britons and there are a similar amount of Australian’s.

NSW followed QLD’s extra security boosts the day after the raids with Operation Hammerhead, which will see hundreds of officers maintain a highly visible presence 24/7 at locations, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Opera House and surrounding foreshore, and at sporting events and large public gatherings.

Muslims make up just 2.2% of the Australian population according to the 2011 consensus.

It’s been reported today that alleged IS leader Mohammad Ali Baryalei didn’t feel welcome in Australia after 9/11 and changed his name to Ali. Since the raids there has been a string of  anti-Muslim hate crimes such as graffiti on mosques, homes and cars and women in hijabs being verbally and physically attacked. Senator Jacqui Lambie and Senator Cory Bernardi’s ignorant comments on Sharia law and calls for burka’s to be banned only adds fuel to the fire. Haji Sultan Deen says he feels general public animosity towards Muslims was stronger now than it was during 9/11.

“It’s worst than 9/11. It’s usually the women in our families who cop the hatred because they wear the hijabs,” he said. “They’re getting spat on and verbally abused in the shopping centres, even from people who know them.”

The burqa has been banned in France followed by Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, Denmark, areas of Russia and Turkey have  passed similar laws. The European Union (EU) court upheld the ban in France in July this year.

The IS group has called for an attack on soldiers and civilians in Australia, the US and Europe in a fifty five minute recording. IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani urged supporters: “If you can kill an American or European infidel – especially the spiteful and cursed French – or an Australian or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the infidel fighters … then rely upon God and kill them in any way possible,” al-Adnani said in the speech, which was uploaded to the web as an audio file.

The IS group’s particular hatred of France is most likely due to it air striking IS militants in Iraq.

In another section, the Isis spokesman refers mockingly to Australia’s preparations to send in warplanes and special forces to tackle the terrorist group in Iraq.

“What threat do you pose to the distant place of Australia for it to send its legions towards you?” it says to Isis supporters. “If the parties have gathered against you, then know they gathered against your prophet.”

“The best thing you can do is to make an effort to kill any infidel, French, American or any of their allies.”

“Oh, Americans, oh, Europeans, the Islamic State did not initiate a war against you, as your governments and media try to make you believe,” Mr. Adnani said in the recording, which included an English translation. “It is you who started the transgression against us, and thus you deserve blame and you will pay a great price.”

In a written response provided to some media outlets, Abbott’s office dismissed the claim that Australia was targeted for its willingness to participate in military action in Iraq, saying “these people do not attack us for what we do but for who we are and how we live”.

This latest threat has only bolstered the Abbott Government’s, police and security agencies drive for more powers with anti-terror laws. The new laws are being announced in three stages, the National Security Legislation Amendment Bill (No.1) 2014, Counter Terrorism Foreign Fighter Bill and Data retention legislation. The latter is to be put to Parliament by the end of the year and the CTFFB is to be debated tomorrow. As I write there has been no proper debate as yet.

Senator Scott Ludlam notes again the Senate is now debating a bill that representatives, on their feet contributing, have not yet actually read.

“That is treating us with contempt.”

He says the office of the Attorney-general, George Brandis, said the amendments would be available half an hour ago. They had not yet been sighted when this was published.

A judge granted the preventative detention orders in the supreme court last Wednesday before the raids. A broad non-publication order remains in place over the orders. The judge ruling on the non-publication order said: “The names of the parties to the proceedings, the evidence in the proceedings, including the oral evidence, the affidavit of the plaintiff (sworn 17/9/14) and the judgment delivered on 17/9/14 are not to be published to any person except as required to comply with any provisions of the Terrorism (Police Powers) Act 2002.”

The ruling is very unusual with no date of expiry allowing the details to be reported, sunset clauses are set to be extended for 10 years when they were set to be abolished too. Widening Australia’s Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO’s) powers for computers and networks; intelligence leaks and the publication (whistle blowing) of those leaks; and allowing ASIO agents to use force during operations will achieve what exactly? The recent counter terror raids were successful, may be not as cost effective as they could have been with 800 officers and only 1 detainee still in custody but nonetheless. There is to be biometric E-gates to process arrivals at all air and sea ports next year, and discussions to be had at the G20 in regards to countries sharing intelligence and IS. And let’s not forget our oft touted strong borders, how can these  ant-terror laws help national security further? I hope these questions will be asked by the opposition when they debate this and that they don’t just blindly accept the Government’s legislation.

It’s time that Australia was not regarded as the young, wet behind the ears, rich foreign cousin that you call on when you need a bail out. Let’s say the West rid the world of IS, like we did Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, then what? Syria can’t get ahead economically with having to spend on National security and the vested interests of the wealthy who occupy political positions of power, let alone now being attacked with American air strikes and climate change only bringing more drought. Who will be there to rebuild homes, businesses, fractured psyches and disabled bodies not only in Syria but Iraq and Turkey where unprecedented numbers of refugees are spilling into with Turkey battling to keep Turks in that want to go over to Syria and fight? It would be better for Australia to help out this situation in a humanitarian sense by upping refugee numbers, increasing aid from zero at least and for a set amount of time, and providing food and agricultural assistance and education.

With Mr Abbott saying “None of us want to get involved in another Middle Eastern war but it is important to do what we reasonably can to avert a potential genocide” he needs to back it up with opening our doors to refugees fleeing genocide not only from there but other countries too such as Sri Lanka.

Now about that budget…

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