Britain’s foreign policy seen failing in Arab world

Updated 25 September 2017

Britain’s foreign policy seen failing in Arab world

LONDON: The majority of Britons believe the UK’s foreign policy in the Arab world has been a failure, an exclusive poll by YouGov and this newspaper has revealed.
That has long been the view from the Arab street, influenced by events ranging from the Balfour Declaration of 1917 to the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The “UK attitudes toward the Arab world” poll, conducted in August, indicates that at least some of those views are echoed in the streets of the UK, with 83 percent of those polled saying Britain was wrong to go to war in Iraq.
The consequences of the 2003 invasion by US and British forces can still be felt today, with some blaming the rise of Daesh on that fatal foreign foray.
Tellingly, the Arab News/YouGov poll found that 58 percent of Brits disagreed with the notion that the UK has been a stabilizing force in the Arab world.  
Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics, said this finding indicates a chasm between the government and public opinion.
“These results speak to the British public being ahead of the elite on these issues,” Gerges told Arab News.
“I think people in the Middle East would be surprised by these findings. There’s a kind of misunderstanding that there’s no distance between public opinion in the West and the views of governments and politicians. There is.”
Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House, said the invasion of Iraq under former Prime Minister Tony Blair still looms large in public perceptions of British foreign policy.
“There was a major breakdown of trust over Iraq. All the arguments used at the time to persuade the country to go to war have been debunked and Blair is now perceived as having lied, even though the inquests relating to the invasion haven’t said he lied,” Kinninmont said.
“Most of the British public would say Iraq is worse off now than before the invasion.”
Gerges said he was not surprised that most Brits believe the Iraq war was a mistake.
“Even at the time there was widespread opposition to the invasion, we saw that with the huge demonstrations and even then Tony Blair was in a minority position,” he said.
While the public is unequivocal about the issue of the Iraq invasion, 53 percent were found to support military action against Daesh, the poll found.
Gerges said he believes that is partly due to the level of media coverage about Daesh.
“They get too much coverage, which only serves to increase the spectacle of violence, brutality and savagery the group wants to display.
“The media has a key role to play. Ever since June 2014 the coverage of (Daesh) has influenced public opinion. Before then I am sure the idea of military intervention in the Middle East would not have been entertained, even in Washington DC.”
Kinninmont said there is a difference between the Iraq war and military strikes against Daesh, and that the British public recognizes this.
“There’s a sense (that Daesh) ‘started it’, that the terror attacks directed at the UK require some response,” she said.
“Iraq was about regime change, and the arguments and context (were) different to what we’re seeing today. People see that difference. There’s not complete opposition to military intervention, it’s just that people are more weary of grand political strategies, going to war to change regimes.”
While the Iraq invasion and its fallout is recent history, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a long-running sore which, many believe, is one of the main underlying causes of instability in the Middle East.

That seemingly has not gone unappreciated by the British public, with 53 percent wanting the UK government to recognize Palestine as a state, with only 14 percent against the idea, and 33 percent neutral on the issue.
Manuel Hassassian, the Palestinian ambassador to the UK, said that public opinion has been shifting over the last few years and support for a Palestinian state will continue growing.
“I have been here for 11 years and have noticed dramatic changes in the British public’s views on Palestine,” Hassassian said.
“That only 14 percent say they wouldn’t want the Palestinian state to receive recognition is an indication of the … Palestinian cause worldwide being accepted.”
According to Yossi Mekelberg, professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, such a finding will not go unnoticed in Israel. However, he claimed it will not make Benjamin Netanyahu’s government change course and actively seek a two-state settlement.
“There is a Palestinian president, a Palestinian delegation in London, so although there isn’t a state there is a lot of visibility,” Mekelberg said.
“Israel shouldn’t be surprised. It’s clear the majority of the international community would like to see a Palestinian state and a two-state solution.
“These figures won’t make Israel change its policies, but it does take notice of polls like these. It doesn’t want to lose the battle for public opinion.
“The figures will only go up and up, the more they build settlements the more the perception will be that Israel is blocking the peace process.”
One finding that perhaps contradicts the fact that the majority of Britons want the government to recognize the state of Palestine is that 32 percent think the Balfour Declaration — the first time the British announced support for the establishment of a “national home” for the Jewish people in Palestine — was something to be proud of.
“The Balfour Declaration is a badge of dishonour to the British colonial system and the government today shoulders a lot of the moral and historical responsibility,” Hassassian said.
“I have spoke to two government ministers who have told me that the Balfour Declaration won’t be complete until the UK recognizes the Palestinian state.
“So I think the figures show a lack of awareness among the British public about the Balfour Declaration. We are starting a campaign to raise awareness.”
Representatives of the UK government’s Foreign & Commonwealth Office did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by Arab News.

• For full report and related articles please visit: How Brits view Arab world

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

Updated 26 November 2020

Turkish president denies country has a ‘Kurdish issue’

  • Erdogan defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts
  • Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq: analyst

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denied the country has a “Kurdish issue,” even as he doubled down on his anti-Kurdish stance and accused a politician of being a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Erdogan was addressing members of his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Nov. 25 when he made the remarks.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) launched an insurgency against the state in 1984, and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and US. Erdogan accuses the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) of links to the PKK, which it denies.

Erdogan told AKP members that Selahattin Demirtas, the HDP’s former co-chair who challenged him in the 2015 presidential elections, was a “terrorist who has blood on his hands.”

Demirtas has been behind bars since Nov. 4, 2016, despite court orders calling for his release and faces hundreds of years in prison over charges related to the outlawed PKK.

The president defended the removal of 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors from their posts in the country's Kurdish-majority southeast region since local elections in March 2019.

He also said the AKP would design and implement democratization reforms with its nationalistic coalition partner, which is known for its anti-Kurdish credentials.  

His words are likely to disrupt the peace efforts that Turkey has been making with its Kurdish community for years, although they have been baby steps. They could also hint at a tougher policy shift against Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

According to Oxford University Middle East analyst Samuel Ramani, Erdogan’s comments should be read as a reaction to Tuesday’s resignation of top presidential aide Bulent Arinc, who urged for Demirtas to be released and insisted that the Kurds were repressed within Turkey.

“This gained widespread coverage in the Kurdish media, including in Iraqi Kurdistan's outlet Rudaw which has international viewership,” he told Arab News. “Erdogan wanted to stop speculation on this issue.”

Ramani said that Erdogan's lack of sensitivity to the Kurdish issue could inflame tensions with Kurds in Syria and Iraq.

“It is also an oblique warning to US President-elect Joe Biden not to try to interfere in Turkish politics by raising the treatment of Kurds within Turkey.”

But Erdogan’s comments would matter little in the long run, he added.

“Much more will depend on whether Turkey mounts another Operation Peace Spring-style offensive in northern Syria, which is a growing possibility. If that occurs during the Trump to Biden transition period, the incoming Biden administration could be more critical of Turkey and convert its rhetoric on solidarity with the Kurds into action.”

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have been a key partner for the US in its fight against Daesh. During a campaign speech in Oct. 2019, Biden criticized the US decision to withdraw from Syria as a “complete failure” that would leave Syrian Kurds open to aggression from Turkey.

“It’s more insidious than the betrayal of our brave Kurdish partners, it’s more dangerous than taking the boot off the neck of ISIS,” Biden said at the time.

UK-based analyst Bill Park said that Erdogan was increasingly influenced by his coalition partners, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

“He might also believe that both the PKK and the HDP have been so weakened that he doesn't have to take them into consideration,” he told Arab News. “The Western world will not respond dramatically to this announcement but they are tired of Erdogan. There is little hope that Turkey's relations with the US or the EU can be much improved. The Syrian Kurdish PYD militia are seeking an accommodation with Damascus, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the largest party in Iraqi Kurdistan, is indifferent to the fate of Turkey's Kurds and has problems of its own.”

The HDP, meanwhile, is skeptical about Erdogan’s reform pledges and sees them as “politicking.”

“This reform narrative is not sincere,” said HDP lawmaker Meral Danis Bestas, according to a Reuters news agency report. “This is a party which has been in power for 18 years and which has until now totally trampled on the law. It has one aim: To win back the support which has been lost.”

Turkey’s next election is scheduled for 2023, unless there is a snap election in a year.