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Voice of the Arab spring: Mehdi Hasan on Al Jazeera

Al Jazeera is an enigma – although owned by an absolute monarch, it’s hailed as an independent voice.

On Friday 11 February, thousands of Arabs spilled on to the streets of the Middle East's capitals, from Rabat to Amman, to celebrate the downfall of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Doha, in the sleepy Gulf emirate of Qatar, was no different: hundreds of youths brought traffic to a standstill on the coastal ­Corniche Road. Shortly before midnight, some of them recognised one of the drivers stuck in the jam: the then Al Jazeera director general, Wadah Khanfar, who was on his way home from the network's headquarters to grab a few hours sleep. After pulling him out of his car, dozens of Qataris queued up to hug and kiss him and thank him for his channel's unrelenting, round-the-clock coverage of the uprisings in Cairo and Tunis.

“I wept," recalls Khanfar, seven months later, when I meet him in the café of a central-London hotel. "I was very emotional." He pauses. "In the Arab world, journalism ­really is an issue of life and death."

He isn't exaggerating. So far this year, Al Jazeera's correspondents and producers across the Middle East have been harassed, arrested, beaten and, in the case of the cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber, killed (by pro-Gaddafi fighters in Libya). As Arab governments toppled from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya - and, last month, Yemen - Al Jazeera has been on hand to beam the pictures of ecstatic protesters, revolutionaries and rebels into the living rooms of ordinary Arabs across the region - and beyond. In Tunisia, the network picked up camera-phone footage from Facebook and other social-networking sites of the riots and protests that took place in the wake of the fruit-seller Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation in December 2010, and gave them a regional prominence they otherwise would not have achieved.

In Egypt, for 18 days straight, Al Jazeera's cameras broadcast live from Cairo's Tahrir Square, giving a platform to the demonstrators, while documenting the violence of the Mu­ba­rak regime and its supporters.

“The protests rocking the Arab world this week have one thread uniting them: Al Jazeera," the New York Times observed on 27 January, as it reported on how the channel's coverage had "helped propel insurgent emotions from one capital to the next". "They did not cause these events," argued Marc Lynch, a professor of Middle East studies at George Washington University, "but it's almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera." Or, as a spokesman for WikiLeaks tweeted: "Yes, we may have helped Tunisia, Egypt. But let us not forget the elephant in the room: Al Jazeera + sat dishes."

At 45, Khanfar, a tall, bearded, elegantly dressed Palestinian, oozes charisma. A former reporter and analyst at the network, who rose rapidly through the ranks to become director general in 2004 at the age of 37, he has since featured in Time's annual list of the 100 most influential people in the world and Forbes's annual list of the world's most powerful people.

Khanfar describes Al Jazeera - which means "the island" - as a "phenomenon". "When it was established, in 1996, it was an exception within the Arab media landscape," he says. "By 2001, Al Jazeera was a well-established voice in the region and even internationally, because of the war in Afghanistan and the fact Al Jazeera was the only broadcaster covering the story from inside Afghanistan."

However, it has been the events of 2011, more than 2001, that have come to define the broadcaster and which have made politicians, journalists, and above all viewers, sit up and take notice of Al Jazeera and its output.

So does Khanfar believe that Al Jazeera was a driving force behind the Arab spring? He won't describe the network as a "cause" of the protests but he admits that it "magnified [protesters'] voices and made them mainstream". For example, Mubarak, he says, "used to tell the parents, 'Go down to Tahrir Square, collect your kids'. But when the parents saw what their kids were doing on Al Jazeera, it became mainstream and they joined them." Yes, but would the revolts have happened without Al Jazeera? Khanfar hesitates. "It would have happened, yes, but it would have maybe been much more expensive [in terms of lives lost] and would have taken much longer to accomplish."

In September, however, despite having presided over the most high-profile, high-impact year in the network's history, Khanfar resigned, suddenly and without warning. ­Rumours continue to swirl as to whether he jumped or was pushed but the fact that his ­replacement, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, is a member of the Qatari royal family, with no background in journalism, has left some supporters fearing what the future holds. Al Jazeera, it seems, is at a crossroads.

I arrive in Doha, on a visit organised by Al Jazeera, and am greeted with a wall of hot air as I disembark from the plane. Qatar occupies a small peninsula on the north-eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula - so small that most foreign maps drawn up prior to the 19th century didn't show it. Flat as a pancake, the country's sole land border is with Saudi Arabia to the south, while the rest of its territory is surrounded by the Persian Gulf.
Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar adheres to the puritanical Wahhabi school of Islam, although Qa­taris tend to not practise it as strictly as their Saudi cousins. There is, for example, no legal requirement for women to wear a face veil or even a headscarf. Within minutes of leaving Doha International Airport, I can't help but notice a semi-naked Rosie Huntington-Whiteley staring out from a Burberry billboard ad.

Distances are short in Doha. Driving from the airport to my hotel and then on to the Al Jazeera headquarters, you see how tiny the thumb-shaped emirate is. Both in terms of people (1.7 million) and size (11,500 square kilometres), Qatar is smaller than Northern Ireland. And, of those 1.7 million residents, Qatari citizens make up just one in seven, or 250,000 - a population that would struggle to fill one of Cairo or Baghdad's larger neighbourhoods. The majority are migrant workers, predominantly from the Indian subcontinent.

But what Qatar lacks in size, it makes up for in money. It sits on the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world and, in 2010, according to figures compiled by the IMF, it surpassed Luxembourg to become the world's richest nation, with a per capita income of $88,000 - almost twice that of the US.

The Qatari economy is booming: growth stands at an astounding 19 per cent and cranes dot Doha's skyline; every building I pass - even the mosques - looks brand new.

It is ironic that a television news network famed for democratising and opening up a region scarred by tyranny and despotism is based here in Doha. Qatar, after all, has long been an absolute monarchy. Its emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, seized power from his ­father in a peaceful palace coup in 1995; the al-Thani family has been ruling Qatar since 1825. But the emir, a tall, corpulent man whose girth was once mocked by Colonel Gaddafi, has transformed Qatar's image and level of influence on the international stage. In recent years, Qatar has donated hundreds of millions of dollars to the US victims of Hurricane Katrina; bolstered the peace process in Darfur; brokered a deal between rival Lebanese militias; and helped reduce tribal tensions in Yemen. Most recently, Qatar threw its weight behind the Egyptian protesters against Mubarak and then pushed for military action against Gaddafi's Libya, providing funding for the rebels and even military aircraft for the Nato-led bombing campaign - the only Arab state to do so.

It has been at the forefront of the Arab League's efforts to sanction and isolate Syria and has tried, in the words of Khaled Hroub of Cambridge University's Gulf Research Centre, "to wrest control from regional third parties, such as the Saudis" and "fill a regional leadership vacuum". Is it any wonder then that a recent headline in the Economist dubbed the bantam-sized emirate a "pygmy with the punch of a giant"?

It is Al Jazeera - the network founded by al-Thani in November 1996 and bankrolled by him ever since - more than any other single ­factor, that has empowered Qatar and boosted its reputation. According to the Qatari media ­consultant Hassan Rasheed, the broadcaster is "Qatar's passport to the world". At a seminar to celebrate "Al Jazeera at Fifteen Years" that I attend at Doha's Sheraton hotel, Philip Seib of the University of Southern California and author of the forthcoming book The Al Jazeera Effect and Real-Time Diplomacy, says the network helped Qataris "put their country on the map". Members of the audience nod ­furiously. Seib then points out how Al Jazeera was a "public diplomacy creation . . . probably one of the most successful in history". The Al Jazeera representative on the panel suddenly looks distinctly uncomfortable.

Al Jazeera is plagued by accusations of bias. But, to the network's credit, they come from all sides: Islamists, secularists, dictators, democrats, Sunnis, Shias, Israelis, Americans - none can decide for sure whether the network is friend or foe.

Take Israel. Al Jazeera is often accused of being hostile to the Jewish state and one-sided in its coverage of issues such as the Gaza blockade; yet it was Al Jazeera that became the first Arab broadcaster to offer a voice to Israeli officials (often speaking in Hebrew!). In his 2005 book, Al Jazeera: The Inside Story of the Arab News Channel That Is Challenging the West, the British journalist Hugh Miles wrote about how the interviews with Israeli army officers and military spokesmen were "truly shocking for the Arab public", especially because "many Arabs had never seen an Israeli speak before". (Khanfar tells me viewers used to phone in regularly to complain about the presence of "lying" Israeli officials on the channel.)

Whether you are for or against Al Jazeera, its power, influence and reach cannot be disputed. From the very beginning of the protests in Egypt, the Mubarak regime recognised it as a threat, revoking its licence to broadcast, ransacking its Cairo bureau and trying to take it off air. The network had to stop naming its correspondents and producers on the ground in Egypt for their own safety. Meanwhile, demonstrators in Tahrir Square could be heard chanting: "Long live Al Jazeera!"

“All this noise from such a small matchbox," a startled Hosni Mubarak is said to have remarked on a visit to the Al Jazeera headquarters in Doha a few years ago. Little did the ageing tyrant realise how much damage this matchbox would do to his regime.

The headquarters consist of two nondescript buildings adjacent to one another: on the right, Al Jazeera Arabic, on the left, Al Jazeera English, which has been broadcasting since 2006. The security is intense: I have to navigate two checkpoints, providing ID and letters of invitation at each, as suspicious guards look me up and down.

Inside, it is a different story. I worked at Sky News as a producer and programme editor ­between 2005 and 2007, and I remember its Osterley studio in west London being a hive of ­frenetic activity: producers running across the newsroom, news editors barking orders to reporters on the phone, "breaking news" straps ready to go. By comparison, the sky-blue Al Jazeera English newsroom in Doha is ­sedate. There is no running and the staff - representing more than 40 nationalities (but with Brits and Americans perhaps over-represented) - seem to be a calm and deliberative bunch.

Al Jazeera English broadcasts to around 250 million households in 130 countries, not far off the global reach of its main rivals, CNN and BBC World. Al Jazeera Arabic, by contrast, reaches 70 million households, mostly in the Middle East and North Africa. Between them, the two news networks employ more than a thousand staff and have 70 foreign bureaux.

I meet Al Anstey, a 45-year-old former ITN journalist who was appointed managing director of the English channel in October 2010, in his vast corner office. Sitting on a cream leather couch, his arms spread out, Anstey exudes confidence. Tall and well-built, he is wearing a dark-blue suit, his crisp white shirt open at the neck. Above his head hang four flatscreen TVs, each airing a different international news channel. "If you look at our competitors, they see the world through the prism of where they are centered," argues Anstey, nodding at the screens above him. "So CNN, with its headquarters in Atlanta, will see the world through a more American prism; the BBC sees it through a more European prism." He says Al Jazeera is different: "It covers the developing world as well as the developed world; it gives voice to disenfranchised and neglected peoples."

So it's a pan-Arab channel? "No, we see ­ourselves as a global channel," says Anstey, who has been with Al Jazeera English since it launched five years ago. "We have been extremely strong covering the Arab spring. But we were also extremely strong on the Japanese earthquake." Others at the channel seem less defensive. "I think it's critical that we keep that sensibility, that we are a Middle Eastern channel," says Mike Hannah, a South-African-born correspondent who worked for CNN as its Jerusalem bureau chief before he moved to Doha. "I think that if we lose that, we lose our specific identity."

I ask Anstey what I asked Khanfar: did Al Jazeera help cause the Arab spring? He is adamant that his channel was not behind the recent revolutions and upheavals in the region. In the past he has said Al Jazeera is "categorically anti-nothing and pro-nothing". Now he says: "The simple answer is we covered the Arab spring; we didn't create it."

Again, Hannah goes further: having acknowledged the role that Facebook and Twitter played in spurring on the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, he reminds me that it was Al Jazeera that provided the "glue" - visually and editorially - to hold it all together: "The Arabic and English channels provided the bridges that allowed people to connect with each other."

After my meetings with Anstey and Hannah, I walk over to the next-door building to see Mustafa Souag, managing director of the Arab channel, who says he has "15 minutes only" to speak to me in his tiny, cramped, ­windowless office. Dressed in a crumpled khaki suit, this Algerian intellectual is a former professor of literary theory, who once lived in London and worked for the BBC. He says his "proudest" moment at the network was when he was told by his reporters in Cairo that government sources credited the presence of Al Jazeera cameras with preventing a massacre of protesters by Mubarak's camel-riding thugs in Tahrir Square.

Souag's take on the Arab spring is distinctive: he argues that the real impact of the network was on Arab opinion in the years running up to 2011: "We provided Arab citizens with knowledge and information, [political] positions and ideas . . . when you give people the right information you empower them." But empower them in which direction? Al Jazeera's secular critics, for example, see it as a platform for Islamist parties, whom they claim are over-represented on the channel's output.

Souag, after denying that the channel acts as a showcase for "extremists", reminds me that "90 per cent of our audience are Muslims and they need to hear from these people" - that is, the Islamists. But he rejects the charge of being biased in favour of groups such as Hamas in Gaza or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt: “I have asked our quality control to go through our output for the whole week and give me specific examples of imbalances, and each time I do so they come back and show me that we haven't been biased and, often, the Islamists have been given even less time than the non-­Islamists." (Back in London, Khanfar is more willing to engage with the critique: "There are too many Islamists on the screen not because of an editorial decision or an editorial bias but ­because Islamists right now are the most influential [movement] in Arab society.")

Then there is the network's relationship with its host nation. It is rare to see Al Jazeera - either the Arabic or the English channel - critically covering the Qatari regime or human-rights abuses inside the emirate. As a US state department cable released by Wiki­Leaks pointed out, Qatari officials "view AJ, both English and Arabic, as important tools of Qatari foreign policy". Another cable adds: "Al Jazeera has resolutely steered away from . . . reporting on anything politically controversial in Qatar."

I ask Anstey how often he is rung up by members of the ruling family: "never". He doesn't budge: "We are not a mouthpiece [for Qatar]; we are not a tool of public diplomacy. We have come here as journalists to carry out the profession of journalism."

He won't, however, tell me how much money the emir provides the network with - but Abderrahim Foukara, Washington bureau chief for the Arabic channel, revealed in an interview with Time in February that it was "hundreds of millions of dollars annually". Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how the network would survive, let alone thrive, if the Qatari authorities were to turn against it. "Simply put, the Al Jazeera success story would not have been possible without Qatar's backing," wrote Cambridge's Hroub last month.

So far, Qatar and its emir have acted as a protective shield for both the Arabic and English channels. Al Jazeera has come under "immense pressure" from regional governments, says An­stey; the network has, at one time or another, been kicked out of virtually every country in the Middle East. But, claims Anstey, he has never been subjected to any pressure from Qatar itself. It is a view echoed by Souag, Khanfar, Hannah and every other Al Jazeera journalist I speak to in Doha - on and off the record. For example, Jon Blair, the Oscar-winning documentary director, who joined Al Jazeera English at the start of the year, says: "There is a total absence of interference from above."

Self-censorship, however, is a different matter. "I think you would be hard-pushed to do a film on homosexuality in the Middle East," says one senior Al Jazeera executive. "It flies in the face of Wahhabi Islam. And so there is an element of self-censorship." But, he adds defensively, "The same thing goes on at the BBC."

The channel's foreign critics, especially in the US, don't agree. Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, an American conservative media watchdog group, refers to Al Jazeera as a "government-funded propaganda channel". In a blog post on 6 March 2010, Kincaid quoted from an Amnesty International report calling for "urgent action" on the arrest and detention of a Qatari human-rights activist, Sultan al-Khalaifi. Yet the story on the website of Al Jazeera English ended with the line, "The Qatari government could not be contacted for comment." "How is it possible that a channel based in Qatar and funded by the regime could not obtain a comment from those who pay its bills and pick its personnel?" he asked in his post.

Al Jazeera's coverage - or lack thereof - of the protests in Bahrain has also come under heavy criticism in recent months. Perhaps, say the critics, it is because of the historically close relationship between the royal families of Qatar and Bahrain; the two tiny nations belong to the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

Anstey rejects the charge of bias and says the English channel has done "50-plus" stories on Bahrain. He cites the documentary Shouting in the Dark, produced by Al Jazeera English and aired on the channel in May. Filmed by an undercover crew, it meticulously documents the ruthless and violent suppression of pro-democracy protesters by Bahraini - and Saudi - security forces.

It is important here to distinguish between the English and Arab channels. When western politicians or journalists speak of Al Jazeera - especially when they do so in negative or critical terms - to which are they referring?

The award-winning (and bilingual) Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab is a close watcher of both. He finds a distinction between the louder, more "hostile" feel of the Arabic news bulletins, and the quieter, mellower, more ­considered tone of the English channel. "[Al Jazeera Arabic] keeps you on the edge," Kuttab told the American Journalism Review in April. "Its reporters are pushing issues rather than just reporting on them. They become more like activists at times, very in your face. The English channel uses more neutral terminology."

Coverage of Bahrain is a classic example of the divide. "It's true that the Arabic channel hasn't done enough on Bahrain," says a senior producer on the English channel.

Ghassan Ben Jeddo, a Beirut bureau chief for the Arabic channel, quit in April in protest at its neglect of the state-sponsored violence in Bahrain. Meanwhile, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qara­dawi, an Egyptian Sunni cleric who lives in Qatar, and whose show, Sharia and Life, is broadcast by Al Jazeera Arabic, claimed on air that "there is no people's revolution in Bahrain but a sectarian one" - implying that it was an attempted Shia takeover of the Gulf kingdom, somehow distinct from the wider Arab spring.

I point this out to Souag, who shakes his head. "The coverage is completely even," he says with a dismissive wave of his hand. He says the Arabic channel had to weigh up each country and each protest movement and, in Bahrain, "we did so in spite of the fact our office was closed and our correspondent was not allowed to work [by the Bahrainis]. We were allowed to send one person there for a very short time and then he was then thrown out. So we didn't have the resources to cover it in the same way but we did try to do it." He becomes animated: "When people ask us why we have not been covering Bahrain, I ask: 'Have you been watching Al Jazeera or living on another planet?'"

Khanfar, however, is much more blunt when I ask him whether Al Jazeera gave equal coverage to Bahrain. "Not equal, no," he says. "Each revolution, each uprising, had its own weight based on its strategic importance, based on its impact across the region. You cannot compare the revolution in Egypt with the uprising in Bahrain." Khanfar is also adamant that the Sunni/Shia divide had "nothing to do with it": "If it was [about] Sunni and Shia, why did we cover the war in south Lebanon, which was all about Hezbollah, a Shia party? Why did we cover all the stories in Iraq, without differentiating between Sunni and Shia?"

Then there is the US, which, despite being an important strategic ally of Qatar, has had a rocky relationship with Al Jazeera. The network provoked outrage in the States by airing video messages from Osama Bin Laden in the wake of 9/11 and by highlighting atrocities carried out by the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2005, it was alleged that George W Bush had discussed bombing the Al Jazeera headquarters in a meeting with Tony Blair; the British premier is said to have persuaded the US president that it was, to put it mildly, a bad idea.

The US did, however, bomb the Al Jazeera bureaux in Kabul (in November 2001) and Baghdad (in April 2003). The latter attack took place despite the network having provided the Pentagon with the street name and map co-ordinates of the office, and resulted in the death of Tareq Ayoub, a reporter. (Outside the newsroom of the Arabic channel is the Al Jazeera "museum" - a rather macabre, dimly lit, high-ceilinged room. Within is the vest worn by ­Ayoub on the day he died, along with his press pass, a handwritten draft of his final report and bits of rubble from the Baghdad bureau.)

These days, relations between the US and Al Jazeera are beginning to thaw, with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, extolling it in March as "really effective" and "real news". The startling conversion of Donald Rumsfeld perhaps best sums up the extent of the transformation of its image in the west and, in particular, in the US. "I can definitively say that what Al Jazeera is doing [in Iraq] is vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable," the then US defence secretary remarked in 2005. Yet, in a candid interview with David Frost on his Al Jazeera English show in September this year, Rumsfeld heaped praise on the channel, declaring that he was “delighted you are doing what you are doing".

In Doha, Anstey beams with pride when I mention these comments. "We were very pleased to be recognised," he says. "The next stage of our evolution is to be seen by more people, to push out and build our reputation. Get out into the American operators."

Al Jazeera's campaign to get access to the major US cable providers - from which it has been all but banned since September 2001 - was boosted by the fact that US viewership of Al Jazeera English's live web stream mushroomed during the Egyptian uprising - its website now receives more than 22 million visitors a month.

But one source at the channel tells me that Al Jazeera's desire to be "taken seriously" - as a February 2006 US state department cable released by WikiLeaks put it - might undermine its independence and integrity. And some of the more conspiratorially minded observers of the network have claimed that Khanfar was ­removed for being too close to the Americans; they point to a WikiLeaks cable that suggests he may have bowed, in 2005, to US diplomatic pressure and toned down the Al Jazeera website's coverage of civilian casualties in Iraq.

Intriguingly, others say that Khanfar may not have been pro-American enough for the Americans - or the Qataris! “The WikiLeaks stuff is a red herring," says a senior source at the English channel. "There was always a concern among the Qatari royals that Wadah was a bit too much of a voice-of-the-people, too pro-revolution, too progressive."

The new director general, Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim al-Thani, is, by all accounts (he turned down my request for an interview), bright, ultra-competent and, by Gulf Arab standards, progressive. And one reason he may have been chosen to replace Khanfar - "a hack, not an administrator", in the words of one executive - is to provide some order and stability to the ever-expanding but deeply turbulent media empire. Employees at the English channel, in particular, have long complained about the management style and structure. It is still a "bureaucratic nightmare" says one senior producer, while another tells me that "morale and goodwill is being eroded by bureaucracy, poor management and a lack of clear leadership".

Anstey admits that there were "challenges from pre-launch to the first couple of years on air where we were evolving extremely fast" and where the "basic challenge was of starting up a channel of this size, with staff from 40 different nations, different backgrounds and networks, and assimilating them into one company, one vision". But, he adds, "it has hugely settled in the past two or three years".

Shortly after taking over, the new director general is said to have called together his most senior managers and executives for a meeting. "What do you think about breathing?" he asked them. They looked, understandably, perplexed. He continued: "And what do you think about your heart beating?" Another pause. Silence from the staff. "What I want," the sheikh told them, "is for employees of this organisation to think as little about administration as they do about their breathing and their heartbeats."

Nonetheless, does it make sense to have one of the world's most successful and influential media operations led by a technocrat, not a journalist? One ex-employee has his worries. "The message is clearly that the state will be exerting more direct control over one of its most prized assets," wrote Will Stebbins, the former Washington DC bureau chief of Al Jazeera English, in the Columbia Journalism Review.

The DG's surname is not the issue, counters Khanfar: "the issue is to what extent he will be guaranteeing editorial policy". For the former director general, Al Jazeera's 15-year record, its independent-minded and experienced editorial staff across the world and its army of loyal but informed viewers will continue to ensure the independent spirit of the network. "Our" - Khanfar still uses the possessive - "viewers are so clever and politicised that they'll be able to sense any change. And once people realise you have become a tool for a political party or government, they will drop you. Whatever you achieved in years can be dropped in a few days."

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera's historic achievements could be under threat from another, more unexpected, direction. Writing in the journal Foreign Affairs in September, Seib wrote of how "the revolutions that the network helped drive have unleashed a cascade of largely local news outlets, which provide more direct competition" to Al Jazeera. The network will be "to a certain extent, a victim of its impressive success and is unlikely to retain the dominance it once enjoyed".

It would be a mistake to underestimate Al Jazeera and, in particular, its durability. Its energy and dynamism this year have left its western rivals looking slow-footed and lacklustre. The Doha-based broadcaster will continue to be a thorn in the side of tottering dictators and despots across the Middle East.

Mehdi Hasan is the NS's senior editor (politics)

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.

This article first appeared in the 05 December 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The death spiral

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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror