Ahmadinejad in Cairo

Morsi opposes Assad regime, while lining his pockets.

Last August, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi told the Non Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Tehran that the Syrian regime had “lost legitimacy.” "We must announce our full support for those who demand freedom and justice in Syria,” he said. His speech was so inflammatory that his Iranian hosts stormed out of the room.

It could therefore be assumed that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to Cairo this week will be extremely uncomfortable. Syria is high on the agenda and it seems Bashar Al Assad’s closest ally could be at loggerheads with Cairo. Egypt is, after all, a product of a revolution similar to Syria’s. Its government enjoys support from Sunni Gulf states, who are actively working to bring down Assad and weaken his support from Shi’a Iran. The recent $10m Egypt received from Qatar indicate Morsi’s government can not afford to have its loyalty questioned on this issue.

Yet there is more that concerns Morsi than revolution, and Qatar is not the only state that has been offering loans recently. In the same month that Morsi spoke at the NAM summit, he turned down a US request to inspect the cargo of Iranian ship. It was travelling to Syria through the Suez Canal and suspected to be carrying arms. In fact, while Morsi publicly calls for Assad to step down this week, he will be helping Syria circumvent EU and US sanctions. Funding for the Syrian regime comes from crude oil exported to Asian markets via Iran. It gets there by travelling through Egypt's Suez Canal.

Ismael Darwish of the Syrian Economic Task Force (SETF), which acts on behalf of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, says that before the Syrian uprising in March 2011, oil accounted for nearly half of all Syrian exports in value and around 25% of all Syrian government revenues. Now, daily production of Syrian crude oil is estimated by the regime to be around 140,000 barrels per day; all under government control, according to Darwish. In March last year, Reuters reported Syrian oil exports to China via Iran, gave Bashar Al Assad’s regime a “financial boost worth an estimated $80m.”

Iran tries to conceal the movement of its ships by disrupting ship tracking systems and sailing under various names and flags. They are trackable only by their unique IMO number. The Iranian ship, the TOUR 2, has flown under the flags of  Malta, Bolivia, Sierra Leone and Togo. Previously registered under three shell company owners in three different countries, the ships  beneficial owner is the Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines (IRISL). It has made at least three circuits between Iran and Syria via Egypt, calling at Syrian ports last March and July. Most recently, the TOUR 2 departed from Iran to load crude oil in December 2012 and sailed through the Canal northwards on 30 December.

Another Iranian ship, the BAIKAL, which was until recently travelling under the Tanzanian flag, also departed from Syria in December 2012 and sailed through the canal on 30 December.

Egypt claims that it is under no obligation to stop Syrian oil tankers, but turns a blind eye to international commitments that may require it to do so. November 2011 Arab League sanctions, for example, require it to halt “ financial dealings and trade agreements with the Syrian government.” The Irano Hind Shipping Company, which owns the TOUR 2 has been sanctioned by the UN. Member states are required to freeze Irano Hind’s assets. Egypt still lets the TOUR 2 pass.

Despite Morsi’s grandstanding on foreign affairs, domestically, his country’s situation limits him.  Egypt’s foreign reserves have dwindled by more than half since January 2011, reaching $13.65bn. The state struggles to import food and petroleum products. Recent protests in Egypt can not be disassociated from anger people feel that their lives are worse under the Muslim Brotherhood. The Suez Canal is one of the greatest sources of revenue for Egypt. A loss of profit from the canal would be a great blow.

With a crippled economy and divided state, the Egyptian president’s hand in these Syria negotiations is weaker than he would have us believe. As well as offering to “dialogue” on Syria this week, Iran’s premier offered Egypt “a big credit line.” Meanwhile, the situation of Syrians, deemed essential earlier this year, has fallen by the wayside.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flashes the victory sign ahead of a meeting in Cairo on 5 February 2013. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.