Guantánamo comes home

Instead of closing Guantánamo, Obama has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the h

Instead of closing Guantánamo, Obama has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the home turf.

It was cold but that didn't matter. Strings of coloured lights still dangled between lamp posts and for progressives across the world, Christmas was far from over. On 22 January 2009, just two days after taking office, Barack Obama issued an executive order that committed the White House to closing the Guantánamo Bay detention facility within a year. "We are going to win this fight. We are going to win it on our terms," he said, and many of us believed him. The US president seemed once and for all to be ushering in a new morning for America, which, unlike Ronald Reagan's false dawn 25 years earlier, would see the country truly becoming "prouder, stronger [and] better". Sam Stein of the Huffington Post predicted that the "blotch on America's image abroad" would soon be wiped clean. Jennifer Daskal, senior counterterrorism counsel at Human Rights Watch, said: "With the stroke of a pen, President Obama will make great progress toward restoring America's moral authority." How wrong they were.

I cite Reagan because he, more than any other US president, seemed to lay the groundwork for the nightmare of the George W Bush years. Reagan gave the international community - if such a community can be said to exist - a taste of what was to come in 1983, when he sent troops to the Caribbean island of Grenada following a coup. He called Grenada a "Soviet-Cuban beachhead" and justified the invasion of the tiny country (with a population of about 100,000) by invoking the major paranoia of those years: the red threat. When the United Nations condemned Reagan's "intervention" as "a flagrant violation of international law", he was unmoved. The president responded to the criticism with a tasteless quip: "It didn't upset my breakfast at all." The UN tried to pass a motion deploring the invasion but the US simply vetoed it. In 2002, Bush would cement this arrogant, dismissive attitude to international consensus and law with his national security strategy.

By moving to scrap Guantánamo Bay so soon after coming to power, Obama reassured his supporters, both within and outside America, that a dark chapter of US history was coming to an end. It was a powerful symbolic gesture that suggested that the rule of international law would be heeded once more by the White House. As the second anniversary of the Cuban camp's "final closure" date nears, however, some 170 prisoners remain imprisoned there. Eight inmates have died at Guantánamo since 2002. Two years ago, Dick Cheney claimed that the detainees were the "worst of the worst" and that the "only other option" to their unlawful incarceration was "to kill them" - yet, of the 770 held, more than 550 have been freed without charge. What's worse, over half of those still languishing in the camp's degrading conditions have already been cleared for release.

As we know now, Obama was and evidently is no cure for the US's addiction to rough "justice". I am convinced that his intentions remain noble; yet an administration must be judged not by its hopes alone (no matter how audacious) but by its actions and by what happens under its watch. In May, when Osama Bin Laden was executed by a team of commandos who had no intention of acting within internationally agreed legal protocols (even their presence in Pakistan was a violation of the country's sovereign territory), Obama confirmed that little has changed when it comes to American foreign policy. His vastly increased use of drone attacks, meanwhile, has led to the deaths of twice as many suspected al-Qaeda and Taliban members as Bush imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay.

On Thursday, the Senate passed the National Defence Authorisation Act for Fiscal Year 2012 (NDAA), which, in effect, formalises the right of the military to arrest and indefinitely detain alleged terrorist operatives without trial, including US citizens. Obama was against the bill and the White House was expected to veto it; but, after what the lawyer Wendy Kaminer in the Atlantic called "cosmetic efforts to obscure the bill's threat to American[s]", the president signed it off.

The ambiguities of the NDAA's phrasing, as well as the broadness of what constitutes a suspected terrorist, has raised alarm on both sides of the political spectrum - Tea Partiers such as Rand Paul have bemoaned its passage in terms not dissimilar from those of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. "The rights we lose now may never be restored," said Rand. "We could see American citizens being sent to Guantánamo Bay." Tom Parker, policy director of counterterrorism and human rights at Amnesty International USA, said on 15 December: "The NDAA provides a framework for 'normalising' indefinite detention and making Guantánamo a permanent feature of American life."

So much for the promise of 2009. Bush gleefully fashioned the US as a rogue state, publicly celebrating its illegal wars in a way that would probably have made even Reagan blush. Obama, for all his evident unease at the country's continued moral decline, has become the first president since the McCarthy era to pass indefinite detention legislation. Instead of closing Guantánamo, he has brought its shameful disregard for human rights on to the home turf.

Photograph: Getty Images

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Who is set to win the Syrian civil war?

The ceasefire is largely holding. So what happens next?

The Syrian civil war is without doubt the worst and most brutal conflict in the world, a generational war without real historical comparisons.

The most recent efforts to bring about a ceasefire, in talks between Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Assad regime at the end of last year, did provide some respite from the fighting in some areas. But the regime’s forces have continued to attack armed rebels around Damascus and particularly in Wadi Barada.

The UN mediator for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, hopes to convene further peace talks in Geneva on 8 February but for now the conflict continues.

On the ground, a classic hereditary tyranny that survives only through force and external contrivance is fighting disparate militias across the country for control of the state. World and regional powers fight with and against it, for reasons of their own. At the same time, much of the actual fighting is local: one village or businessman against another.

The armed opposition is flagging. From Islamic State (IS) to Jabhat an-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam (the Army of Islam) to Ahrar ash-Sham, extreme religious conservative militias – many of them led by veterans of the Jihadist insurgency against the United States in Iraq – have long since taken over as the main bulk of the rebel forces.

The original Syrian uprising was libertarian, anti-hierarchical, and revolutionary in character – as most popular movements are – but these sentiments were either lost in the general dirt and blood of civil war, hindered by external support for Jihadist forces, or caved in under the extreme brutality of the regime. A significant constituency that believes in the first principles of the uprising survives in the exiled diaspora but its numbers fighting on the ground are now few and marginal.

The existing Sunni Arab armed opposition, regardless of ideology, generally has little to no understanding of the parallel but different fight of the Kurdish militias led by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the North and even less sympathy for their cause. In some cases they are openly contemptuous of historical Kurdish grievances and current Kurdish ambitions and cling like the regime to a statist insistence on the integrity of Syria’s existing borders.

The Kurdish militias while they despise the regime do not trust the main of the Arab opposition and have largely refused to work with them on the wider project of overthrowing it, choosing instead to consolidate their gains in the North.

Outside of the Kurdish enclaves, the conflict today is really a series of set-piece sieges around the remaining opposition strongholds (and a couple of rebel sieges of regime outposts) punctuated by village to village and hamlet to hamlet skirmishes.

Almost all of the armed opposition has become detached from the civilian population and this year the reality of its fight as being over territory and to establish or protect lucrative looting and smuggling businesses will become clearer.

Of the major sieges, it is those around Damascus that will draw the most attention in the early part of the year. The rebel positions in Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad are likely to be forced into an ignominious surrender by regime forces in the next few months.

The crown of the opposition’s strongholds near the capital, in the Eastern Ghouta oasis, is also likely to fall to regime forces within the year. The Syrian army has already retaken chunks of rebel-held Eastern Ghouta and took advantage of the 30 December ceasefire to mass for a push on rebel positions around the enclave.

“With Aleppo city retaken in its entirety, the regime can afford to focus manpower on the area, which has been severely weakened anyway by siege conditions and rebel infighting,” Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi, one of the few analysts with knowledge of the Jihadist opposition and the current balance of forces within Syria, tells me.

Using its superior diplomatic position and fire superiority, the regime is set to re-take the last anti-government bastion around the Syrian capital.

The regime’s capture of Aleppo late last year was a significant victory which was a long time coming. The successes that the armed Syrian opposition enjoyed from late 2011-15, and that allowed them to take Aleppo’s centre, were dependent on critical Turkish support and reinforcement through the open Turkish border.

During 2016 Turkey, recognising that the regime wasn’t going to be overthrown without massive US intervention, reduced the scope of its support, sealed the border, and moved towards diplomatic normalisation with Russia.

The armed opposition in the area has predictably fallen apart and never had much hope of holding east Aleppo. What fighting forces remain are open Turkish proxies working to keep IS away from the Turkish border and fighting Syrian Kurdish forces, not overthrowing the regime.

The armed opposition is not entirely spent however. In the city of Idlib, rebel forces remain strong and still control almost all of the surrounding province.

The area is dominated by Jabhat an-Nusra, commonly referred to as the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, which expelled the secular Syrian Revolutionaries Front from Idlib in 2014. As the Century Foundation’s Sam Heller has documented, Ahrar ash-Sham are also influential there alongside a coalition of other extremist militias.

“I see Idlib as more likely to remain a rebel bastion over the next year, with strong supply lines still coming in through Turkey, and the regime still needing to clear out the north Hama and Latakia fronts, which have proven to be a nuisance,” Tamimi says.

In the south of the country, the US and Jordan have set up their own proxy forces to work with the armed opposition, but their efforts have proved non-committal and ineffective. The US/Jordanian force is currently trying to dislodge IS forces in the city of Deraa, but to little effect.

In Homs the regime has lost ground to IS of late but its forces there pose no serious threat to the regime and the same applies vice versa. Its stronghold in al-Bab is besieged by Turkish proxies and beset by Russian and Turkish air strikes.

Understanding the war in Syria in 2017 will necessitate discarding the propaganda. The Assad regime is not merely defending the country from fanatical outlaws, although there are plenty of them, and neither is the armed opposition only an expression of resistance to state tyranny, which is similarly real. The US and Europe are not supporting democratic forces and Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime are no more fighting “terror” in Syria than the US was in Iraq.

Contrary to claims that the world is ignoring the conflict, there has been constant intervention by regional and world powers. The US and UK have intervened consistently on the side of the armed opposition since the onset of the war and the effect was mostly to perpetuate the conflict as a bloody stalemate.

Since October 2015 Russian intervention – alongside Iranian incursions – has proved critical in shifting the fight in the regime’s favour by the use of brute force and violence. The recent rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is an ill omen for Kurdish aspirations for autonomy in the North.

No one can seriously argue that the problem in Syria is insufficient foreign intervention. Ascribing the brutality of the war to a lack of external involvement may be a convenient way for the usual suspects to push for future aggressive foreign policy but it has no basis in the historical record.

With Russia and Iran’s assistance the regime is winning. Saudi Arabia is focused on Yemen and without substantial Turkish support and Saudi funding the armed opposition is already falling apart. The chances of a great revival are slim.

But the rebels still have Idlib. And even with Damascus and its suburbs fully under its control the regime must contend with a committed insurgency and its own fundamental illegitimacy. So the war goes on.

Tom Stevenson is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul