What role did Israel play in the run-up to the Iraq war?

Blair, Bush, Chilcot and the Israelis.

I haven't been able to bring myself to blog on the Iraq inquiry since last Friday, when we were all transfixed by Tony Blair's defiant and unrepentant testimony. Sir John Chilcot and his team of long-winded, deferential establishment worthies did a stunningly inept and incomplete job, allowing our former premier -- as is his nature -- to duck, weave, dodge, distort and evade.

I felt like throwing my remote control at the television.

Here's Bob Marshall-Andrews, Labour MP and Queen's Counsel, writing in the Guardian:

Answer after answer descended into self-serving waffle of total irrelevance. His love of America, his closeness to President Clinton, his admiration for the armed forces, the indescribable nastiness of Saddam, "the calculus of risk" (what?), his experience as a junior barrister, even his silly asides to Fern Britton expanded endlessly to suffocate meaning. No one demanded a straight answer. No one deplored the obvious strategy of delay.

In the morass, essential questions surfaced briefly, were avoided and remained, amazingly, ignored. Question: "Had President Chirac phoned to say that his position was being misrepresented out of context?" Answer: "I remember speaking to Chirac on a number of occasions." Yes? And? What is the answer? We will never know, as the examination drifted gently on to another topic, and obscurity remained.

The most unforgivable, outrageous and bizarre moment of the day occurred when Blair, for some inexplicable reason, volunteered the following revelation about his all-important meeting with George W Bush in Crawford, Texas, back in April 2002:

As I recall that discussion, it was less to do with specifics about what we were going to do on Iraq or, indeed, the Middle East, because the Israel issue was a big, big issue at the time. I think, in fact, I remember, actually, there may have been conversations that we had even with Israelis, the two of us, whilst we were there. So that was a major part of all this.

Blair and Bush had "conversations" with "Israelis" while they were alone in Crawford, having a behind-closed-doors, private meeting about Iraq? Which Israelis? Were they present, or on the phone? Did the Israelis express a view about Saddam Hussein, WMDs or "regime change"? How many other Iraq-related meetings or discussions were the Israelis involved in?

The answer to all these questions is: DUNNO! The committee members didn't ask him. There were no follow-ups. They simply . . . moved on.

And so, too, did the media. I haven't yet seen the "Israelis at Crawford" story reported in any national newspaper. Apart from a brief reference by Seumas Milne on the Guardian's Comment is Free website, there has been no coverage of this story in the mainstream media.

So were the Israelis agitating for war against Iraq, and was Israel a factor in the Bush administration's decision to unilaterally and illegally invade Iraq in 2003? Opinion has always been split on the anti-war side. But Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, in their much-discussed London Review of Books essay "The Israel Lobby", back in 2006, made a persuasive case for the argument that Israel, and the pro-Israeli lobby, were key players on the road to war:

Pressure from Israel and the Lobby was not the only factor behind the decision to attack Iraq in March 2003, but it was critical. Some Americans believe that this was a war for oil, but there is hardly any direct evidence to support this claim. Instead, the war was motivated in good part by a desire to make Israel more secure. According to Philip Zelikow, a former member of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, and now a counsellor to Condoleezza Rice, the "real threat" from Iraq was not a threat to the United States.

The "unstated threat" was the "threat against Israel", Zelikow told an audience at the University of Virginia in September 2002. "The American government," he added, "doesn't want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell."

On 16 August 2002, 11 days before Dick Cheney kicked off the campaign for war with a hardline speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Washington Post reported that "Israel is urging US officials not to delay a military strike against Iraq's Saddam Hussein". By this point, according to Sharon, strategic co-ordination between Israel and the US had reached "unprecedented dimensions", and Israeli intelligence officials had given Washington a variety of alarming reports about Iraq's WMD programmes.

As one retired Israeli general later put it, "Israeli intelligence was a full partner to the picture presented by American and British intelligence regarding Iraq's non-conventional capabilities."

Israeli leaders were deeply distressed when Bush decided to seek Security Council authorisation for war, and even more worried when Saddam agreed to let UN inspectors back in. "The campaign against Saddam Hussein is a must," Shimon Peres told reporters in September 2002. "Inspections and inspectors are good for decent people, but dishonest people can overcome easily inspections and inspectors."

At the same time, Ehud Barak wrote a New York Times op-ed warning that "the greatest risk now lies in inaction". His predecessor as prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, published a similar piece in the Wall Street Journal, entitled: "The Case for Toppling Saddam". "Today nothing less than dismantling his regime will do," he declared. "I believe I speak for the overwhelming majority of Israelis in supporting a pre-emptive strike against Saddam's regime." Or as Ha'aretz reported in February 2003, "the military and political leadership yearns for war in Iraq".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Guns and bullets and nothing more: The Syrian Kurds fighting Isis

They are the US-led coalition's main ally in the fight against Isis, but as Turkey keeps bombing them, the sense of betrayal is growing.

A sense of a betrayal pervaded the funeral, giving an angry edge to the mourners’ grief. The Kurds were used to the Turks killing their people. It was almost expected. What was different in their attitude to the killing of the 14 men and women buried that hot afternoon in the cemetery at Derik, among 20 fighters killed by Turkish air strikes just three days earlier, was that it had occurred under the watchful auspices of the Syrian Kurds’ big ally: America.

So when a US armoured patrol arrived at the edge of the cemetery in northern Syria, the American troops had been met with sullen stares and silence. I watched Aldar Khalil, one of the most influential advisers with the local Syrian Kurdish administration, approach the US army officer while a cordon of armed YPG fighters surrounded the patrol to keep civilians away.

“I told the American officer how angry people felt,” he told me afterwards, “and advised them that as soon as they had achieved what they wanted to at the funeral they should go. Emotions are high. People expected more.”

The air strikes had been far more significant than anything previously visited by the Turks on the YPG, the Syrian Kurd fighting group that has become the Americans’ primary ally in the forthcoming battle to capture the city of Raqqa from Isis. Operations to shape the battlefield around the militants’ capital are ongoing, and some sections of the front YPG units, the mainstay of the anti-Isis alliance, are now less than four kilometres from the outskirts of Raqqa.

However, the entire operation was thrown into jeopardy early on the morning of 25 April, just days before US officials confirmed that President Donald Trump had authorised the direct supply of weapons to the YPG. Turkish jets repeatedly bombed the YPG’s main command centre on Qarachok Mountain, just above the small town of Derik, destroying ammunition stocks, a communications centre and accommodation blocks. The dead included Mohammed Khalil, a top commander involved in planning the Raqqa operation.

The attack immediately drove a wedge between US troops and the Syrian Kurds, who felt they had been knowingly betrayed by the United States, which had acted as the YPG’s ally in the fight for Raqqa with the one hand while allowing its fellow Nato and coalition member Turkey to stab the YPG in the back with the other.

“There were a couple of days after the Qarachok strikes when several of our leading commanders, and many of our people, put on the pressure to withdraw our forces from the Raqqa front altogether and send them to protect our borders with Turkey,” Khalil, the Syrian Kurd adviser, told me. “They wanted to stop the Raqqa operation. We had to explain very carefully that this was [the Turkish president] Erdogan’s goal, and to persuade them to continue.”

Senior YPG commanders suffered deep personal losses in the Turkish air strikes. Among the mourners at Derik was ­Rojda Felat, a joint commander of the overall Raqqa operation. Standing beside the grave of Jiyan Ahmed, one of her closest friends, she clasped a portrait of the dead woman in her hands.

“She survived fighting Da’esh [Isis] in Kobane, in Tal Hamis and Manbij,” Felat said. “She survived all that, only to be killed by a Turkish jet.”

Later, illustrating the fragile contradictions of the coalition’s alliances, Felat explained that she had gone to sleep in the early hours of 25 April, after finishing a series of late-night planning meetings with British and US officers at the forward headquarters she shares with them on the north side of Lake Assad, Syria’s largest lake, when word of the air strikes came through.

“It was very clear to me that the Americans I was with had not known about the air strikes,” said Felat, 35, a legendary figure among Syria’s Kurds whose role models include Napoleon and the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. “They could see how upset and angry I was to learn in an instant that so many friends had been killed, and the Americans dealt with that compassionately. I was extremely distressed, to say the least,” she added, looking away.

Within a few hours of the strikes, Felat was on a US helicopter alongside US officers flown to Qarachok to assess the damage in a very public display of US-YPG solidarity.

The Americans were quick to try to mitigate the damage to their Kurdish allies. A further 250 US troops were sent into Syria to run observation patrols along the Syria-Turkey border in an attempt to de-escalate the tension, bringing the number of US troops there to more than 1,200. In addition, US weapons consignments to the Syrian Kurds increased “manifold” in a matter of days, Felat said.

Yet these measures are unlikely to stop the fallout from a strategy – that of arming the Syrian Kurds – which risks broadening Turkey’s overall conflict with the YPG, unless certain crucial political objectives are attained parallel to the push on Raqqa.

Turkey, at present regarded as a mercurial and mendacious “frenemy” by Western coalition commanders, perceives the YPG as a terrorist organisation that is an extension of its arch-enemy the PKK, a left-wing group demanding greater auton­omy within Turkey. Hence Ankara’s deep concern that the YPG’s growing power in Syria will strengthen the PKK inside Turkey. The Turks would rather their own proxies in Syria – an unattractive hotchpotch of Syrian Islamist groups mistrusted by the West – reaped the rewards for the capture of Raqqa than the YPG.

Although US commanders find the YPG more reliable and militarily effective than the Turkish-backed Islamist groups, the Syrian Kurds are a non-state actor, a definition that ensures B-grade status in the cut and thrust of foreign policy. Nevertheless, recalling the painful lesson of 2003 – that military success is impotent unless it serves a political vision – the US should be devoting energy to imposing conditions on the supply of arms to the YPG as a way of containing Turkish aggression against their ally.

Salient conditions could include the YPG disassociating from the PKK; a cessation in repressing rival political parties in YPG areas; the withdrawal of YPG fighters from northern Iraq, where they are involved in a needless stand-off with Iraqi Kurds; and an agreement by the YPG to withdraw from Raqqa, an Arab city, once it is captured.

As a quid pro quo, and in return for the YPG blood spilled in Raqqa, the Syrian Kurds should have their desire for autonomy supported; have the crippling trade embargo placed on them by the government of Iraqi Kurdistan lifted; and, by means of buffer zones, have their territories protected from further attacks by Turkey and its Islamist proxies.

So far, none of these measures is in play, and comments by US officials have only strengthened a growing suspicion among Syria’s Kurds that they will be discarded by the US the moment the YPG have fulfilled their use and captured Raqqa.

“We have not promised the YPG anything,” Jonathan Cohen, a senior US state department official, told the Middle East Institute in Washington on 17 May – a day after President Erdogan’s visit to the US. “They are in this fight because they want to be in this fight. Our relationship is temporary, transactional and tactical.”

Cohen further said: “We have the YPG because they were the only force on the ground ready to act in the short term. That is where it stops.”

The sense of betrayal felt by the mourners at Derik was perfectly understandable. But Syria’s Kurds should not be so surprised the next time it happens. America, it seems, has promised them nothing more than guns and bullets. 

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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