There is no more foul a stench than the stench of hypocrisy, and there is no more foul a hypocrisy than the British government painting Bashar al-Assad as a monster when in truth he and the Syrian people have been grappling with a twin-headed monster in the shape of Salafi-jihadi terror and Western imperialism. Both are committed to destroying Syria as an independent, non-sectarian state, and both are inextricably linked.
Author and journalist Mark Curtis charts in detail the contours of this history in his book ‘Secret Affairs: Britain’s Collusion with Radical Islam’:
“British governments, both Labour and Conservative, have, in pursuing the so-called ‘national interest’ abroad, colluded for decades with radical Islamic forces, including terrorist organizations. They have connived with them, worked alongside them and sometimes trained and financed them, in order to promote specific foreign policy objectives. Governments have done so in often desperate attempts to maintain Britain’s global power in the face of increasing weakness in key regions of the world, being unable to unilaterally impose their will and lacking other local allies. Thus the story is intimately related to that of Britain’s imperial decline and the attempt to maintain influence in the world.”
As far back as the First World War, when the Middle East began to assume strategic importance in the capitals of Western imperial and colonial powers, the British ruling class went out of its way to identify and recruit loyal local proxies in pursuit of its regional objectives. Britain’s relationship with the Arab tribal chief, Ibn Saud, who would go on to establish Saudi Arabia in the early 1930s, began in 1915 with the Darin Pact, demarcating the territory then controlled by Saud as a British protectorate.
The following year, the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans erupted. Begun and inspired by Saud’s fierce rival, Sharif Hussein, head of the Hashemite Arab tribe, the revolt was heavily bankrolled and supported by the British – a period immortalized in the exploits of British military agent T E Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia.
But whereas Sharif Hussein was a follower of orthodox Sunni Islam, Ibn Saud adhered to the radical doctrine of Wahhabism, which Winston Churchill was moved to describe as “bloodthirsty” and “intolerant.” Regardless, when it came to its imperial interests there was no tiger upon whose back the British ruling class was not willing to ride during this period, and which, as events have proved, it has not been willing to ride since.
The most egregious example of this policy, one that continues to have ramifications today, was the support provided by the UK to the Afghan mujahideen in the late 1970s and 1980s. The insurgency’s objective was the overthrow of Kabul’s secular and left-leaning government, whose crime in the eyes of the Islamist insurgency’s US and UK sponsors was that it had embraced the social and economic model of Moscow rather than Washington during the first Cold War.
British support for the mujahideen, married to the huge support provided by Washington, was indispensable in the eventual success of these self-styled ‘holy warriors’ in taking control of a country that had embraced modernity and turning it into a failed state mired in religious oppression, brutality, backwardness and poverty.
Mark Curtis again:
“Britain, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, covertly supported the resistance to defeat the Soviet occupation of the country. Military, financial and diplomatic backing was given to Islamist forces which, while forcing a Soviet withdrawal, soon organized themselves into terrorist networks ready to strike Western targets.”
While Washington’s primary role in channeling military and financial support to the Afghan mujahideen, known as Operation Cyclone, may until have succeeded in overshadowing London’s role in this dirty war, declassified British government cabinet papers which were made public in 2010 and reported in the UK media make grim reading.
They reveal that three weeks after Soviet forces arrived in Afghanistan at the request of the Afghan government in Kabul, struggling to deal with an insurgency that had broken out in the countryside, the Thatcher government was planning to supply military aid to the “Islamic resistance.” A confidential government memo provides a chilling insight into the insanity that passed for official policy: “We trust the Western leaders are prepared for the enormous beneficial possibilities that could just possibly open up if the Afghan rebellion were to succeed.”
It will be recalled that out of the ensuing collapse of Afghanistan emerged the Taliban, under whose rule the country was turned into a vast militant jihadist school and training camp. Many of the most notorious Islamist terrorists began their careers there, fighting the Soviets and then later broadening out their activities to other parts of the region and wider world. In this regard, Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda loom large.
Other notorious names from the world of Salafi-jihadism for whom Afghanistan proved indispensable include the Jordanian Abu al-Zarqawi, who founded Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during the US-UK occupation, an organization that would over time morph into ISIS.
Abdelhakim Belhaj and other Libyan Islamists cut their jihadist teeth in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Returning to Libya, they formed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) in the eastern city of Benghazi. Though the group may have been disbanded in 2010, having failed to topple Gaddafi despite repeated attempts to assassinate the Libyan leader with, it’s been claimed, the support of Britain’s MI6, former members of the LIFG, including Belhaj, were important actors in the 2011 Libyan uprising.
By way of a reminder, the uprising in Libya started in Benghazi and would not have succeeded without the air support it received from NATO. Britain’s then prime minister, David Cameron, was key in pushing for that air support and the sanction of the UN under the auspices of Security Council Resolution 1973. Though protecting civilians was central in wording of this UNSC resolution, it was shamefully distorted to justify regime change, culminating in Gaddafi’s murder by the ‘rebels.’
Staying with the LIFG, in the wake of the Manchester suicide-bomb attack in May 2017, which left 23 people dead and 500 injured, the fact that the bomber, a young Libyan by the name of Salman Abedi, was the son of a former member of the LIFG, did not receive anything like the media attention it should have at the time.
Manchester, England is home to the largest Libyan community in Britain, and there is strong evidence to suggest that when the Libyan uprising broke out MI6 facilitated the ability of Libyan Islamists in Britain to travel to Libya to participate in the fighting. Among them was Salman Abedi, who it is thought received military training in the country before being allowed to return to the UK thereafter.
This brings us on to Syria and, as with Libya, the question of how so many British Muslims have been able to travel from the UK to Syria via Turkey to take part in the anti-Assad insurgency since 2011? It also brings into sharp focus a policy that has veered between the ludicrous and the reckless.
Emblematic of the former was ex-prime minister David Cameron’s claim, which he made during a 2015 Commons debate over whether the Royal Air Force should engage in air strikes against ISIS in Syria, that fighting as part of the Syrian were 70,000 moderates.
As for the recklessness of Britain’s actions in Syria, look no further than the country’s recent participation in the illegal missile strikes that were carried out in conjunction with the US and France, justified on the basis of as yet unproven allegations that Syrian government forces had carried out a chemical weapons attack on Douma, just outside Damascus. The only beneficiaries of such actions by the Western powers are Salafi-jihadist groups such as ISIS (whom it was later reported took advantage of the missile strike to mount a short-lived offensive), Al-Nusra and Jaysh al-Islam.
The latter of those groups, Jaysh al-Islam, is a Saudi proxy. It was the dominant group in Douma and throughout Eastern Ghouta until the district’s liberation by the Syrian Army and its allies with Russian support.
Given the deep and longstanding ties between London and Riyadh; given the fact, reported towards the end of 2017, that British military personnel were embedded in a training role with Saudi forces in Yemen; given the news that a British special forces sergeant was killed in northern Syria at the end of March this year while embedded with the Kurds, revealing for the first time that British troops were operating in the country on the ground – given all that, the question of who else British special forces and military personnel may be embedded with in Syria is legitimate.
In the context of the British state’s long and sordid history when it comes to riding the back of radical Islam in pursuit of its strategic objectives, readers will doubtless draw their own conclusions.