It’s impossible to close the borders

The West should stop military intervention, says top American advisor

Photo by Warren RichardsonA Syrian baby is handed through a hole in a razor wire barrier, to a refugee who has already managed to cross the border. This picture, by Australian photographer Warren Richardson, won this years World Press Photo of the Year award. The World Press Photo expostion can be seen in Amsterdam’s Nieuwe Kerk until July 10.

By Vincent Bongers

We will have dealt with IS within a year, predicts top American advisor and former CIA agent Graham Fuller, who will be giving a series of talks in Leiden later this month. “But we have to allow the Middle East to deal with it themselves.”

(De originele Nederlandstalige versie van dit artikel staat hier)
“I expect that IS will be almost completely destroyed in less than a year”, says American Middle-East expert Graham Fuller (78).
“What they are doing is horrific, but I’m more worried about Europe. Europe is being shaken up. The flood of refugees, created by the war in Syria, threatens Europe, the political experiment. The alliance is breaking up. Borders are being patrolled once more and the extreme right is on the rise.”
Fuller was once the vice-president of the National Intelligence Council, one of the American government’s most important advisory committees. As a CIA agent, he was stationed in places like Afghanistan, Yemen, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia. This month, he will be giving three lectures about the Middle East at Leiden University.
Fuller thinks that Europe needs help with the refugee crisis, although his own country has failed to make much effort in that area. “Europe is bearing far too much of the burden at the moment. You can’t expect countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden to take in enormous numbers of refugees. The population is simply too small to cope with them.”
It’s crucial that other countries start helping – Saudi Arabia, for one. And why aren’t we sending refugees to the traditional migration destinations like the US and Canada? Or South America? Imagine half a million Zulus fleeing: if the Netherlands were to accommodate them all, it would have a huge impact on the country but nobody would even notice them in America or Canada. The biggest change would be the number of good African restaurants that opened. It’s really shocking to see how few Syrian refugees are taken in by my own country.”
Especially as Fuller considers America to be partly responsible for the rise of IS. “Because the invasion of Iraq destroyed the social infrastructure of that country and the resulting cesspit of chaos and anarchy was, of course, a perfect environment for IS. And the failed attempts to deal with the war in Syria haven’t helped much either. Bashar al-Assad is the main culprit responsible for the disaster but my own nation had a very unfortunate part in it too.”
But even if peace returns to the Middle East, it won’t solve the refugee problem. “Migrants are shaping the future of our world. Nations are weakening, not only because of economic and political crises: food and water shortages and environmental problems will cause much more mass migration. We can count on a constant flood of refugees moving all over the world. We all want to protect our own beautiful cultures; we’re all trying to create something impossible. It’s going to be all mixed up. It’s impossible to close the borders.”
Fuller is very critical of the Western policy on the Middle East in recent decades. “The attacks in Paris and Brussels were terrible, obviously. But the West has contributed to the chaos in the Middle East. It works both ways.”
His solution? “I’ve been observing American interventions in the Middle East for decades. One thing is very clear: we need to put an end to military intervention. It fails time and again – in fact, it simply aggravates the problem. Bombing and using drones are, unfortunately, unavoidable if we want to get rid of IS in Syria and Iraq, but after that, we really must stop. Some IS supporters will flee to Libya and other countries but we can’t keep chasing them all over the world. It’s up to the Islamic countries to deal with it.”
But what will happen if IS disappears? “Iraq has started the painful process of rebuilding. The Shiites, for the first time in the history of the country, have come to power democratically and have been too tough on the Sunnites. They need to work together to hold the country together. Syria is an even bigger mess. The US opposed Assad by supporting groups of fighters containing all sorts of radicals. That was a mistake. Obama has also now realised that anyone who succeeds Assad is probably going to be much worse. The country has to be held together and Assad is the lesser evil. The Russian intervention has done some good: it’s become clear that this is not a war between the West and Islam.”
In his book A World without Islam (2010), Fuller argues that we should view the Middle East in a new light. His message is that the problems have little to do with Islam. “Phrases like ‘the clash between Western and Islamic culture’ or the “fault of Islam’ are merely platitudes. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not about religion, it’s about Europeans feeling guilty towards Jews. The Palestinians were pushed out of the way; they have lost their country – Hindus and Buddhists wouldn’t have put up with it either.”
The same applies to terrorism. “Hezbollah is a major party in Lebanon. When the name comes up in conversation, it’s often followed by the words terrorist organisation. That’s Israel’s view, and we simply believe them. But it’s foolish to put Hezbollah down like that. The party has an armed division, that much is clear, but it’s also the most important political faction in Lebanon. We must listen to them if we want to achieve anything.”
And what about Turkey, which often undeservedly gets the blame in Fuller’s opinion? “It’s a modern, democratic Islamic nation, the only country in the Middle East to have removed the military from its political system. The Turks are very pragmatic and moderate and don’t let themselves get caught up in radical movements. The Islamic AK party has ruled successfully for ten years – things only started to go wrong in the last three years, unfortunately. Erdogan is becoming too powerful, he’s dangerously ambitious and autocratic; he’s losing touch with reality and the way he deals with the press is absurd. That sometimes happens to leaders who are in power for a long time. But if he is voted out at the next elections, he will leave. I don’t believe he wants to stage a coup to stay in power.”
How does Fuller see the future of the Middle East? “Unfortunately, I can’t describe the present situation as anything except ‘catastrophic’. But it’s up to those nations themselves to come up with a strategy. The West is acting like an overbearing parent. Leave them alone: they have to deal with it themselves, otherwise the political systems in all those countries will remain puerile.”

Terrorism was not on the agenda

“Collecting intelligence is the world’s second oldest profession”, says ex-CIA agent Graham Fuller. But he hates telling exciting stories about it. “I don’t like to describe it as thrilling or spectacular. It is very satisfying if you manage to get hold of important information that isn’t actually available. But that’s all I want to say about it. I left thirty years ago. We focused on keeping an eye on the Soviet Union. Counterterrorism, which is the CIA’s most important task nowadays, wasn’t even on my agenda. The organisation is now four times its former size and has been involved in very unsavoury matters like water-boarding and snatching people off the street and putting them on a plane to Guantanámo. We didn’t do anything like that in the old days.”

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