Root Causes

syria-flag1When the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings began in early 2011, analysts took stock of the likely outcomes and declared that Syria was ‘immune’ to the phenomenon.

The reality was sadly entirely different.

It is extremely difficult to be certain exactly how many people have been killed in Syria since protests against the government of Bashar Al-Assad began in early March 2011, as neither the government nor its current strongest opponent, IS, keeps count of civilian deaths, while the latter does not release tallies of its own casualties, and it is hard to be sure whether the former’s numbers can be trusted.

But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that up to 320,620 people have been killed in the conflict, while United Nations records show more than four million people have fled Syria since the war began, with a further 7.6m forced from their homes, but still within Syria itself.

Whatever Syria was, ‘immune’ was not it.

It’s hard to be certain why people make mistakes. In the case of the Arab Spring, in many cases it seems that people simply never quite grasped exactly what was driving protests (which then spilled into attempts – many successful – to change governments) in the first place.

A number of people suggested uprisings began to topple dictators – and succeeded in part because of social media being used as a rallying tool.

But neither of these ideas – powerful contributory factors as they undoubtedly were – ever rang entirely true. In Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, dictatorships had been in place for many decades before the protests, and while social media was certainly used to organise and engage people, it cannot be regarded as a catalyst for the action.

Some of the Arab Spring’s causes are analysed in my forthcoming book The Toss of a Coin: Voices from a Modern Crisis – which will be available to buy  next month – but in Syria, there were three extra factors which few people considered deeply:

  • Assad was never expected to lead Syria. An ophthalmologist by training and career, he was called back to the state only in 1994, on the death of his brother, Bassel. He took charge of Syria’s occupation of Lebanon in 1998. Even by the twisted logic of hereditary dictatorship, it’s clear Assad himself suffers crises of legitimacy, which had been addressed solely by the exercise of military force.
  • Assad took power only in 2000. Combined with issues of legitimacy, his short time in power meant he was particularly prone to challenges to his command.
  • From 2006-2011, a drought described by climate and agricultural expert Gary Nabhan as ‘the worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilisations began in the Fertile Crescent’ struck Syria.

Affecting 60 per cent of the state, it forced a mass exodus into its cities, and impacted upon as many as three million people. Those internally-displaced people – and the people native to the cities they entered – were disappointed and angered by what they saw as Assad’s failure to grasp the depth and seriousness of the crisis, and his failures to act upon it.

In short, there were in fact a number of reasons to perceive Syria as more likely to experience sustained and serious protest – and that this protest might develop into prolonged conflict – than some of the states around it. Perhaps we could go so far as to list these as root causes of the crisis.

The list above is by no means exhaustive, and its point is not to criticise those who missed these clues – hindsight is a friend only to those who do not need to predict what will happen.

But it has come to mind more than once in the last few days (I write on 20 July 2015) in relation to UK government statements – notably those of its Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May – on Syria and extremism.

On Sunday (19 July) an interview with David Cameron was broadcast in the USA, on NBC’s Meet the Press in which he said ‘I want Britain to do more. Be in no doubt, we’re committed to working with (the US) to destroy (IS) in (Syria and Iraq).’

Cameron’s government has already been defeated once over military activity in Syria, when in the summer of 2013, parliament refused to back his planned bombing of Syrian targets.

On that occasion, he wished to target Assad, and although the ‘enemy’ has now changed, it’s clear that his first defeat has not discouraged him from attempting to engage the UK in attacks on Syrian territory.

It emerged late last week – thanks to a Freedom of Information request (the UK government is currently drafting legislation to make such requests far more difficult to make successfully) made by campaign group Reprieve – that despite parliament’s rejection, UK pilots embedded with coalition forces had taken part in airstrikes on Syria.

And Mr Cameron and UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon have also stated that they are considering extending the UK’s air campaign over Iraq, to Syria, in the wake of the massacre of 38 people on Sousse beach, Tunisia, on 26 June.

IS is a despicable organisation, which uses gruesome murders to recruit through both awe and terror. Its activities in Syria, Iraq and Libya have been unforgivable, and it is not hard to sympathise with anyone who wishes to stop them.

But two years ago, Mr Cameron led calls to bomb a completely different – and opposing – combatant in the Syrian war (though Assad and IS are on opposing sides, the former is a mass murderer who should face trial and lifetime imprisonment for his crimes in this conflict), and not only did the Tunisian massacre take place nearly 2,400km from Damascus, it was perpetrated by a Tunisian who was supposedly trained by Al Qaeda (which opposes IS) in western Libya, nowhere near Syria.

On Sunday 19 July, Julian Lewis, the chairman of the UK defence select committee, and a senior member of Mr Cameron’s party, described Mr Cameron’s Syria policies as ‘incoherent’.

Certainly, it is extremely difficult to understand exactly what the UK government’s strategy is, and equally hard not to conclude Mr Cameron and his team are severely out of their depth on this issue.

Similar alarm bells rang at 12.30pm today, when Mr Cameron spoke at Ninestiles School, Birmingham, and announced that ‘the root cause of terrorism is extremist ideology’ and that consideration of matters such as poverty, historic injustice, or war, is nothing more than ‘grievance justification’.

In his speech, which was intended to set out his government’s strategy for dealing with extremism for the next five years, he said: ‘When people say: ‘It’s because of the involvement in the Iraq war that people are attacking the west,’ we should remind them: 9/11 – the biggest loss of life of British citizens in a terrorist attack – happened before the Iraq war.

‘When they say that these are wronged Muslims getting revenge on their western wrongdoers, let’s remind them: from Kosovo to Somalia, countries like Britain have stepped in to save Muslim people from massacres. It’s groups like IS, al-Qaida and Boko Haram that are the ones murdering Muslims.

‘Others might say: it’s because terrorists are driven to their actions by poverty. But that ignores the fact that many of these terrorists have had the full advantages of prosperous families and a western university education.’

The problem with arguments like this is not that everything within them is wrong. Instead, it’s that these arguments seem to have been chosen specifically because they are easy to refute, and in doing so, to lay the groundwork for counter arguments.

This may be a reasonable public relations strategy, but it is not something upon which anti-extremism policy should be based.

For example, though 9/11 took place before the second Iraq war, IS simply did not exist before that war. It is not unreasonable to consider that a contributory factor to the existence of IS might be a war in the state where IS was created, especially as IS was created very soon after that war.

This does not explain ‘extremism’, but nobody has ever seriously suggested it does.

The second Iraq war was hardly the first event in history (the use of the word ‘second’ is a pointer to that). It is not beyond the realms of possibility that at least some of the members of Al Qaeda (the group which carried out the 9/11 attacks), were inspired by previous activities of non-Muslims in Muslim states. The group was originally set up in 1979, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan, for example.

And Mr Cameron’s use of the words ‘grievance justification’ seems equally inappropriate. No-one in their right mind would ever claim that IS is justified in setting fire to and beheading people because the second Iraq war took place. Nor would anyone sane argue that because the West has snatched lives across the Middle East and Africa, Al Qaeda is justified in murdering innocent people.

And no-one is arguing that.

But Mr Cameron is not only claiming that they are, but that anyone who considers whether our acts affect people’s ideas and subsequent decisions is somehow ‘justifying’ terrorism. It is possible to attempt to understand something without believing it is correct. And we may accept that someone has a legitimate grievance, without accepting them murdering people.

(It’s a little bewildering that he used 9/11 in this speech at all: he was talking about extremism in the UK, yet cited four attacks on US soil in which no UK citizen took part)

Mr Cameron’s next sentence – that ‘countries like’ Britain have stepped in to save Muslims from massacres in Kosovo and Somalia’ – contains its own problems.

First, because it hints that Mr Cameron believes all Muslims are the same; that if a ‘country like’ Britain has stepped in to save some Kosovans, that probably means all Muslims all over the world should be grateful – or at least recognise the basic goodness of that country.

As a brief experiment on those lines, when I mentioned earlier that Al Qaeda had formed in response to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, did you think that justified its enmity towards the USA? Our view of ourselves is far more detailed and accurate than our view of ‘other people’. We should perhaps remember that.

Equally, why should a person choose to remember the UK’s role in saving Kosovan Muslims’ lives, but choose to forget the 100,000 people killed in the second Iraq war and its results? Why would they look at Somalia and not look at CAR, where no Western state has intervened to help Muslims who are being slaughtered by the Lord’s Resistance Army?

Why would we expect Muslim people to note only the moments during which the UK might have been on the ‘right’ side, but ignore the thousands of Palestinians killed by Israel with Western backing*, or the tens of thousands killed in Afghanistan?

*the point here is not which of Israel/the West and Palestine was ‘right’ but that dismissing the possibility that people might consider this when forming an outlook on the world is insupportable.

Once again, this is not to justify murder: nothing can or should do that. And it is heartening that Mr Cameron was prepared to stand in public and confirm that the massive majority of those murdered by IS so far (more than 95 per cent) have been Muslims.

It is simply to state that dismissing historical grievances (and this is without even mentioning Empire and the meddling in states’ governance and borders since global empires dissolved) by pointing to some occasions on which Britain has done the right thing is not an especially strong point.

This afternoon was not the first time Mr Cameron has attempted to dismiss poverty as a contributing factor to extremism.

I have noted in a previous post that in fact no-one claims poverty as the sole reason for terrorist activity (Osama Bin Laden was of course an extremely wealthy man), and it’s frustrating to imagine that Mr Cameron thinks they do. But it’s worth stating once again that the majority of places where IS, Al Qaeda and other groups are strongest are places where poverty is rife.

And to build on this a little further, very few people argue that most extremists join terror groups to put food on the table. What they discuss instead is the impact that poverty has on people’s relationship to the world around them.

If someone becomes so poor that they can play – or feel they can play – no active part in the world around them, that marginalisation is widely recognised to contribute to a feeling of frustration that in extreme cases can lead to violent responses.

And this seems to fit with what we see in Syria, (where in fact terror also plays a very large part in IS’ recruitment strategy), in Libya and in Iraq, where because of ongoing conflict, people do feel marginalised – unheard and unhelped – and do (on all sides) commit acts which seem inexplicable from a more comfortable setting.

It’s a shame Mr Cameron hadn’t managed to look a little more carefully at this issue, because it may also play a part in convincing people to leave the UK to fight for IS – not poverty, but marginalisation.

And we must remember that this – the decision of some people to commit acts of terror in the UK or elsewhere – is what underpins all of Mr Cameron’s ideas on extremism.

As he stated: ‘the cause of violent extremism is extremism.’

It’s a cute sentence, of the kind politicians (and, to be fair, writers and reporters) enjoy. But there are two problems. It is either so facile as to be meaningless, or it has specific meaning and is demonstrably false.

In the first case we are left with an almost limitless set of questions – not least ‘what do you mean by extremism?’

Because this is very much a matter of where you draw the line. There are, for example, a number of Muslim (and Christian) guidelines on wealth and poverty which seem closer to Communism than late-era Capitalism.

If one is a free-market liberal, Communism seems not just like an extreme economic position, but the most extreme economic position one could take. Does that mean that a person who believes wealth should be spread equally among all people in the world is ‘on the path to violence’?

Equally, many states claim Islam or Christianity as their state religion. Mr Cameron himself periodically claims to be Christian: to an atheist, his view might be interpreted as extreme.

But no-one on Earth – perhaps especially Mr Cameron – would genuinely argue that someone believing in God ‘leads to violent extremism’ and would use that as a reason to outlaw religion

On this level, Mr Cameron’s statement is useless: we have literally no idea what extremism is by his reckoning.

The alternative is that there is a specific and literal meaning to the statement: ‘the cause of violent extremism is extremism’.

This meaning might be that, for example, a person who starts out by believing that the way of life people lead in the West will endanger someone’s immortal soul; that women, for example, should be forced to cover their faces, and should not be allowed to leave their homes without the express permission of a male member of their family, will therefore turn to violence.

Because these are extremist views. To many of us, they seem abhorrent.

But they are held by millions of Salafists around the world, and those Salafists specifically outlaw all violence, of all kinds, everywhere. Should we outlaw beliefs and opinions in case they lead to violence?

It is here that Mr Cameron’s strategy breaks down. He tells us what does not cause extremism, but he does not explain any of the things that lead to violent extremism. And he tells us some of the things he intends to do about ‘extremism’, but not what he and his government mean by ‘extremism’.

And it does matter. Because in Syria, Iraq and Libya – amongst others – people are dying because of people’s acts, not their beliefs.

And because here in the UK, alongside decent inclusive policies like providing English lessons to people who settle here, Home Secretary Theresa May says the government’s anti-extremism policy will ‘tackle all forms of extremism, not just Islamic extremism’ and promises ‘banning orders’ for groups considered extreme by the government – even though the government explicitly recognises a difference between extremist views and violence.

It is not easy to be certain you have captured the root causes of any problem.

But Mr Cameron’s overconfidence in his success in having done so is a cause for alarm, because by attempting to legislate people’s beliefs rather than their activity, his government risks perpetuating violence and chaos in Syria, Iraq and Libya, and a systematic removal of liberty here in the UK.


This morning, an explosion in the town of Suruc, Turkey, killed 28 people, and injured almost 100 more.

The explosion, believed to have been caused by a lone female suicide bomber, took place at the Amara Cultural Centre, which was being used as a gathering point for members of the Socialist Youth Associations Federation.

The group had been planning to help rebuild Kobani, a Kurdish town which had been overrun by IS last September, but was retaken by Kurdish forces in January.

Kobani, in Northern Syria, is just six miles from Suruc.

It remains the site of one of IS’ largest and most embarrassing failures.

Unlike some other recent attacks – in Syria and Libya, by IS and by Assad’s forces – I did not know anyone caught in this blast.

But I do know many people currently in Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, who are working diligently and courageously to help reduce the suffering of human beings caught in – and/or fleeing from – the grim chaos of the Syrian conflict.

It appears that the young people who had gathered in Suruc were similarly dedicated to helping those in urgent need of aid.

Their attitude and commitment to the wellbeing of others – like those of thousands of other people across Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and all over the world – should serve as an inspiration to us all.

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